DVD 8/30/11: Wonders of the Universe, Phantom Pain, True Adolescents, Running Wilde S1, Wrecked, Storage Wars S1, Murphy's Law: Complete Collection, Vera, Desperate Housewives S7, Cougar Town S2

Wonders of the Universe (NR, 2011, BBC)
The spectacularly sneaky first episode of “Wonders of the Universe” has some bad news: In addition to Earth, the entire universe has a finite lifespan, after which point it will exist infinitely as complete and total nothingness. Fortunately, the end of the universe is still 10,000 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years away, so there’s still time to write that novel you’ve been putting off starting. The aforementioned number isn’t an exaggeration, either: It’s an unimaginably literal number and just one of the many eye-openers this completely unassuming show sneaks up and drops on you. “Universe” presents itself differently than most shows of its ilk, insofar that the entire presentation is exhaustively and intimately handled by a host, University of Manchester Professor Brian Cox, who talks to viewers like a friend sharing dinner more than a professor giving a lecture. The style is a bit jarring at first — in part due to the style itself, but just as much due to the persistently-smiling Cox’s ability to occasionally channel Mr. Rogers — and you might reach the halfway point of the first episode and wonder what the series’ true aim is. But it’s about that time that Cox drops the first of many fascinating bombshells, and when you realize exactly how “Universe” plans to build up and tackle the most expansive subject there is, the intimate tempo goes from a point of concern to perhaps its greatest asset.
Contents: Four episodes (roughly four hours total), no extras.

Phantom Pain (NR, 2009, Entertainment One)
If you’re familiar with the term “phantom pain” and what it means, the discovery that the movie of the same name stars a character (Til Schweiger as Marc) who loses a leg won’t exactly catch you unaware. More remarkable about “Phantom Pain,” though, is the fact that a character losing his leg basically registers as coloring for his story instead of as its catalyst. When we meet Marc, he is, silver tongue and abler body aside, already a mess — nearly broke, a failed husband, a failing father, on unemployment’s doorstep and burying the 10-year ache of a rejection letter that inspired the self-sabotage of a promising writing career. Throw limb removal on top of that, and yeesh, right? But here’s the thing about Marc: In spite of all that’s wrong with him, he’s still alarmingly easy to like. “Pain,” despite providing Marc with so many messes that it’s hard to know where the cleanup should begin, reflects that likability. It conveys more with less, and even when things go from bad to worse, it sidesteps melodrama in favor of a mood that’s grounded and somewhat humorous but also profound
without preaching. It neither begins nor ends neatly, but it also demonstrates that a story need not be tidy to provide its intended lift. In German with English subtitles.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, interviews.

True Adolescents (NR, 2009, Flatiron Film Co.)
Sam (Mark Duplass) is 34, is in some sort of band, has something of a relationship that probably is over, and wouldn’t mind if his aunt (Melissa Leo) let him crash at her house while everything magically works itself out (no, seriously, for real this time). In return, though, he has to do her one favor and take her teenage son (Bret Loehr as Oliver) and his best friend (Carr Thompson) camping after Oliver’s father bails on him yet again. What we have, then, is the equivalent of an angsty movie supergroup that combines the reluctant road trip with not one, but three coming-of-age movies split across two generations. If you’re familiar with Duplass’ body of work, you already know he’s angsty enough to pull this off. But in a pleasant development, “True Adolescents” quickly finds a balance it likes — neither overly silly nor overly serious, but somewhere loosely and comfortably in between — and sticks to it. More than a story that dramatically changes our campers, “Adolescents” is a story that reflects its characters and flows and grows in a fashion befitting of a weekend trip. There are no dramatic swells or grabs for tears, and those who like their movies nice and traditional may have a problem with that. But sometimes it’s nice to watch a movie that prioritizes its ability to relate to its audience above everything else, and that’s something “Adolescents” does rather well.
Extras: Duplass commentary, filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Running Wilde: Season One (NR, 2010, Lions Gate)
It wouldn’t be efficient to explain why or how oil fortune heir Steven Wilde (Will Arnett) convinced his childhood crush (Keri Russell as Emmy) — who also happens to be an extremely dedicated environmentalist — to travel halfway around the world and attend a completely hollow awards ceremony. All you really need to know is that he’s that guy, she’s that girl, and they’re sharing a mansion with her daughter (Stefania Owen, who also narrates) and a cast (Mel Rodriguez, Robert Michael Morris, Peter Serafinowicz, David Cross) of wacky servants, friends and rivals. That’s a lot of implausible wackiness — perhaps, in spite of all “Running Wilde” does well, a bit too much. “Wilde” comes courtesy of some of the brain trust responsible for the immaculate “Arrested Development,” and the same sense of humor and overriding theme (the cluelessness of the undeservedly rich and unreasonably ideal) factor prominently. But where “Development” found balance in its characters and regularly checked itself with bitterly dry humor, “Wilde” often doesn’t. The ratio of cartoon characters to normal (term used loosely) people is sometimes detrimentally imbalanced, and “Development” fans who plan to marathon this one may want to schedule a few more breaks than originally envisioned. There’s a lot to love here, but don’t be surprised if getting there occasionally leaves you a little weary.
Contents: 13 episodes, no extras.

Wrecked (R, 2011, IFC Films)
The title doesn’t lie: When our unnamed main character (Adrien Brody) wakes up following a car accident, he and the vehicle he rode in on are indeed a wreck. He’s stuck in the car, the car’s stuck in a ravine, the two other people in the vehicle are dead, and he doesn’t remember who he is or how he got there. With that in hand, “Wrecked” embarks on a no-frills storytelling adventure that’s 95 percent survival and five percent recollection. But while the idea is sound, the execution is a little too courageous with its convictions. Our unnamed not-quite hero’s memory comes back to him a little too slowly for our sake, and “Wrecked” asks for too much by asking us to care about the survival of a character it won’t willingly let us get to know. Things eventually come together on that front, and the full revelation of what brought him to this state he’s in is actually quite good. But it’s at least a partial shame that “Wrecked” uses this as the final reveal instead of the first domino for a third act that builds on it. That would have robbed it of some impact, but if it results in a more engaging story and a more engaging character, that’s a good trade to make.
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features.

Storage Wars: Season One (NR, 2010, A&E)
Ever wonder what happens to those public storage lockers when the renter stops paying the bill? For a lucky few of them, they become props for a reality TV show. “Storage Wars” delves into the enticing world of “buyers,” who compete in heated auctions for storage lots whose contents remain mostly a mystery until the winning bid sails in. That’s when the real fun begins, with buyers rifling through their new lots to see if they found treasure or just threw a lot of money away. Like most A&E shows, “Wars” shoots for a low common denominator by distilling the whole thing down to a handful of buyers and rivalries, both of which appear to have been spiced up and edited for drama’s sake. The results of that approach are often obnoxious, as is the show’s tendency to beat the same scenarios and rivalries into the ground over multiple episodes. A little less time in this department and a lot more time devoted to the job’s other particulars would have been welcome, because “Wars” makes the job look much easier than it must be. But even at its most predictably banal, “Wars” is compelling fun when the buyers are left alone with their new loot. Finding diamonds in the rough is ultimately what the job is all about, and the show perfectly conveys the thrill of the hunt.
Contents: 19 episodes, no extras.

Worth a Mention
— “Murphy’s Law: Complete Collection” (NR, 2003, Acorn Media) and “Vera” (NR, 2011, Acorn Media): Britain has quietly but steadily built an empire of television shows about deeply troubled detectives, and if your only access to overseas television is via a means other than cable, here are two more jewels in the crown for your catchup list. “Vera’s” titular character (Brenda Blethyn), to her credit, is more cranky than troubled, but one look at her weary cohorts says a thousand words about the fragile trade-off between her personality and her gift for getting to the bottom of crimes that stymie others at the surface. Tommy Murphy (James Nesbitt), on the other hand, is a straight-up mess — mourning the murder of his daughter by bottling it up, drinking it away and throwing himself headfirst into a dangerous undercover post in London’s Metropolitan Police Dept. Though “Murphy’s Law” toes it a little more precariously, both shows mind the line between the evil they show and the deeply dark humor that keeps both leads from going completely over the edge. The cases carry their own weight with creative storytelling that mines these grumps for gold without beating us over the head with the overriding themes. “Vera” contents: Four episodes (totaling nearly six hours), no extras. “Murphy’s Law” contents: 23 episodes, no extras.
— “Desperate Housewives: The Complete Seventh Season” (NR, 2010, ABC Studios): Another new mysterious new neighbor-turned-rival (Vanessa Williams), check. Another scare (a shooting), check. 23 episodes’ worth of secrets, lies, misunderstandings and confessions, check, wash, rinse, repeat. “Desperate Housewives” conceded its freshness once the gimmick of fast-forwarding five years wore off, but the plateau hasn’t turned into a downslope just yet, so it’s still fun to watch. The return of a few long-gone characters (no spoilers) is a nice way to freshen up some old storylines, too. Includes 23 episodes, plus deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, outtakes and bloopers.
— “Cougar Town: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2010, ABC Studios): “Cougar Town,” which came to us from some of the same folks that previously gave us “Scrubs,” got off to one clunky start after trying a little too hard to apply the “Scrubs” model to a show about middle-aged unrest and one woman’s (Courtney Cox) search for post-divorce love. But it settled down before settling into its own, and season two pays off on season one’s growth with a considerably smoother and consistently funnier ride. Funny what a little patience from network executives can do, no? Includes 22 episodes, plus deleted scenes, the six-webisode “Andy’s Dreams” series, a behind-the-scenes feature and outtakes.

Games 8/30/11: No More Heroes: Heroes' Paradise, Quarrel

No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise
For: Playstation 3
From: AQ Interactive/Marvelous Entertainment/Konami
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, crude humor, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language)
Price: $40

If you wanted to love “No More Heroes” on the Wii but couldn’t get around its logistical roadblocks, the least interesting news about this overdue port may also be its best news.

Before we continue, let’s restate that: “No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise” is a port of the first “Heroes” game. The game’s new developer and publishers haven’t dramatically remixed it or spruced up what ailed it back in 2008, and while the graphics benefit greatly from the high-definition bump, that’s exactly what they are — a high-definition presentation of visual assets from the Wii version. It suffices just fine, in no small credit to a unique graphic style seen most commonly in motion comics, but you won’t be floored.

If anything — following an opening sequence that gives you an enticing taste of “Paradise’s” combat, mainline mission structure and storytelling flair — you might be confused. Because between those missions lies perhaps the worst open world design ever devised, and it arrives on the PS3 fully intact and still seemingly incomplete.

“Paradise” mandates that you take jobs (minigames) and side missions to fund your career as an up-and-coming assassin, and it spreads those tasks out across a huge map that’s perplexingly empty between destination spots. Driving through town once is, thanks to motorbike controls that give “stiff” a bad name, a bit of a chore. Doing it ad nauseam to play so-so minigames that eventually allow you to get to the next mission is just tedious, and “Paradise” missed a major opportunity to just do away with the open world or at least make it skippable via menus.

As with “Heroes,” though, what lies at the heart of this barren environment is what makes “Paradise” worth the trips through it. The game’s combat — doled out with your fists, feet and a beam katana that by any other name is an off-brand lightsaber — is simple but fun in an outrageously violent B-movie kind of way. The satisfaction of ripping through an army of no-name thugs is matched on a different scale by the mainline missions’ final encounters, which bring some terrifically weird character designs to a head with tense (if often unwieldy) one-on-one fights.

The boss designs work in tandem with monologues, dialogues, style choices and anything-goes narration to create a world that’s confidently capable of pulling double duty as a heart-on-sleeve spectacular and a fearless self-parody. Completely unrelated Influences come together to create discordant harmonies in “Paradise,” and the glee with which it all happens makes it easy to appreciate the game’s stylistic misses almost as much as its hits.

As should be no surprise, “Paradise” supports the Move controller in the same fashion that “Heroes” supported the Wii remote. But a lack of refinement in this area means that the camera issues that plagued this control scheme once plague it all over again here. There’s no 1:1 fidelity between the Move wand and the katana, and the annoying motion needed to recharge the katana is actually less responsive than it was on the Wii because the Move wand wasn’t built with jerky movements like this in mind.

Fortunately, “Paradise” had the good sense to include compatibility with traditional controllers, and the second thumbstick does wonders with its allowance of manual camera control and increased responsiveness with regard to certain finishing attacks. Playing this way undoes some of the novelty that made “Heroes” special in its first incarnation, but if the novelty of the Wii remote has already long worn off, it’s hardly a loss.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Indiagames Limited/UTV Ignition
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $5 for deluxe version; lite version available for free

The conceptually brilliant (and arguably excessively cheerful) “Quarrel” is what happens when Boggle and RISK have a child. The setup might sound familiar: Up to four armies share adjacent territories with one another, and dominating a “Quarrel” match comes down to wiping out the other armies before they eliminate yours. In this case, though, a battle comes down to eight random letters and one chance to build a better word than the opposing army. The more troops you have occupying the conflicted square, the more letters you can use to build your word, and the winning battalion can (depending on circumstance) take the square completely, whittle it down to one opposing troop, or make opposing troops switch allegiances. “Quarrel’s” cheerful presentation is a bit too caffeinated for its own good, but the actual game is a polished execution of a seriously great idea. You can play a base game of “Quarrel” for free, but most of the good stuff — a campaign, match customization, daily challenges, most of the maps and characters — is available only in the deluxe edition. Unfortunately, neither edition includes any kind of multiplayer, which might be a deal-killer given the influences in play and the state of word games on iOS. The A.I. is reasonably good, but here’s hoping multiplayer tops the to-do list for future updates.

DVD 8/23/11: The Beaver, Cold Fish, TrollHunter, Little Big Soldier, The Bleeding House, Henry's Crime, Win Win, The Event

The Beaver (PG-13, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is depressed — so much so that the ability to even spit out a sentence, much less salvage his relationship with his wife (Jodie Foster, who also directs) and teenage son (Anton Yelchin), sits impossibly out of reach. Enter the beaver, a hand puppet prescribed by Walter’s doctor through which Walter can channel his thoughts fluently, brilliantly, and with a charming British accent. (Actually, Walter impulsively self-prescribed the beaver, which he found in a motel dumpster, and the whole idea might be more manic than therapeutic, but that’s a secret between us, him and the beaver, OK?) If you’re wondering what kind of tone a movie takes on with a plot like that, throw a dart at the wall and you’ll hit a correct answer, because “The Beaver” — bravely, erratically, brilliantly, crazily — runs the gamut and laps it for good measure. It has issues with pacing, and it can’t always decide whether to handle Walter with kid gloves or absolutely pulverize him. But as a story about a inconsolably depressed man who is clinging to the tenth of a tenth of a speck of something that makes sense, “The Beaver” does a very difficult topic proud — with humor, anger, grace and a bleeding heart — far more than not. You may love it, you may hate it, you may laugh it off and not get it at all, but regardless of the outcome, “The Beaver” neither takes its subject lightly nor leaves it quietly.
Extras: Foster commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Cold Fish (NR, 2010, The Collective)
Tropical fish shop owner and familial doormat Nobuyuki Shamato (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) appears to have trouble on his hands when his daughter (Hikari Kajiwara) gets busted for shoplifting. But in a twist that doesn’t completely make sense, the owner (Denden as Yukio Murata) of a much larger and far more spectacular fish store not only bails her out of trouble, but offers her a job at his store. The price for this lucky break makes even less sense, but without spoiling just how absolutely crazy “Cold Fish” gets, it results in a terrified Shamato unwillingly forging a partnership with Murata, whose means of persuasion and business conduct are terrifyingly, bloodily effective. When you’re as easily rattled as Shamato gets, sometimes doing awful things is preferable to having them done to you. Sprawled out over 144 relentlessly busy minutes, “Fish” is a story of charisma, impulse, delusions of grandeur and the will to live run unbelievably amok. It makes zero pragmatic sense, and if you make the reach to psychologically justify what happens, you’ll eventually separate your shoulder. Instead, just sit back and take in what might be the most emotionally ballistic horror movie you’ve ever seen, guided along by an absolute maniac whose Cheshire Cat smile is as frightening as the spark that turns it upside-down and sets him completely off. (Note: Soft stomachs need not apply.)
Extra: Interviews.

TrollHunter (PG-13, 2010, Magnet/Magnolia)
“TrollHunter” is yet another movie that solemnly claims to be culled from authentic, found footage, and if you’ve grown tired of a storytelling ploy that’s run itself ragged in the last few years, you’re well past the point of taking this also-ran seriously. Fortunately, and in spite of the setup, “TrollHunter” has no wish to be taken seriously. “TrollHunter” follows a crew of camera-wielding teenagers who, while investigating a series of suspicious bear killings, confront a troll hunter (Otto Jespersen as Hans) whose government-funded job is as literal as the title implies. Hans initially shoos the crew away and toes the company line about trolls being a myth, but then decides to spill all and take them on a few expeditions. The reason? Like everyone else, he’s a disgruntled employee. Though it follows the found-footage blueprint in terms of style and premise, “TrollHunter” goes its own terrifically entertaining way once Hans joins up. The straight face, echoed perfectly by Han’s humorless disposition, becomes a catalyst for some very funny dry humor. “TrollHunter” bucks another obnoxious genre trend by giving us an eyeful of the trolls early and often instead of making us wait until the end, but even with them in the frame, it’s the troll hunter — as hilariously dedicated to his craft as he is disgruntled, just as the movie’s special effects are simultaneously campy and awesome — who owns every shot he’s in. In Norwegian with English subtitles, but a wonderfully awful English dub is available as an option.
Extras: Deleted/extended scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, improv/bloopers, photo galleries.

Little Big Soldier (NR, 2010, Well Go USA)
Incalculable death accompanied the Warring States period that found countries conquering each other until a single China remained. So don’t blame Big Soldier (Jackie Chan) for merely playing dead after a general (Leehom Wang as Little Soldier) from Wei inspects the carnage that befell Big Soldier’s Liang countrymen  — especially when it allows Big Soldier to pull a fast one and kidnap Little Soldier in hopes of netting a payday. If you’re wondering at this point whether “Little Big Soldier” is going for laughs, heartstrings or blood, how impressed would you be if it potently manages all three without offending the sensibilities of any of them in the process? As accidental buddy comedies go, “Soldier” is a riot, because whenever Little and Big don’t need each other to overcome a bigger threat or common enemy, they’re ready to resume attempting to destroy one another. Even when you expect the men to eventually reach an understanding, the candor and dry comedy with which the script takes us there elevates it well above a simple march toward the inevitable. All the while, and between some terrific action scenes, national pride quietly makes its presence felt. And while its primary function is to prop up some pretty funny spats, it most effectively pays off during a third act that brings all these moods home without leaving any one of them out. In Mandarin with English subtitles, but a pretty good English dub is available as an option.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, Jackie Chan music video.

The Bleeding House (NR, 2011, Tribeca Film)
Charming out-of-towner Nick (Patrick Breen) simply needs a place to crash when he happens upon the home of Marilyn (Betsy Aidem) and Matt (Richard Bekins), and if you guess immediately that letting him in is a fatally bad idea, congratulations: You’re tied with everyone else for smartest person in the room. But “The Bleeding House” isn’t so concerned with bucking the obvious as it is with conforming to it in style. Nick’s disarming introduction gives way to an equally cordial explanation of what, exactly, makes it a mistake to let him in, and “House” follows suit with a spartan story that hones in on Nick’s madness instead of clouding it with sensationalized gore and other smoke and mirrors. The no-nonsense approach is refreshing in any context. But before “House” even introduces us to Nick, it acquaints us with Marilyn and Matt’s teenage daughter Gloria (Alexandra Chando), whose collection of dead creatures and insistence on being called Blackbird makes her far transparently creepier than the guy who’s supposed to be the bad guy here. The dance these two characters do throughout “House” lends an extra layer of intrigue to the whole thing, and the single line one of them delivers in the finishing sequence is better than most horror movies’ whole last acts.
Extras: Alternate ending, deleted scenes.

Henry’s Crime (R, 2010, Fox)
When Henry (Keanu Reeves) agreed on a whim to fill in as a sub in his friends’ softball game, he learned the hard way that “softball game” actually was code for “bank robbery.” Getting busted as the unknowing wheelman left him serving three years while his friends skated and his (Judy Greer) left him, and there’s only one way to make this right: Rob the bank for real. From that fantastic premise on down, “Henry’s Crime” has a lot going for it. Max (James Caan)  steals most of the show as Henry’s cell mate-turned-bank robbing accomplice, and while Julie’s (Vera Farmiga) role is completely improbable, she so perfectly pulls double duty as the foil and the muse that the implausibilities are easily forgiven. “Crime’s” only real crime is, unfortunately, Henry himself. He begins his story as a deer in headlights, which amusingly and aptly suits his role as a mediocre husband and Olympic-level doormat, but his character just plateaus from there. “Crime’s” supporting pieces are good enough to keep the heist entertaining anyway, but if you’re waiting for prison, abandonment and a bank robbery to light some kind of fire under Henry, you’ll be disappointed. It’s hard to root for his revenge when you’re not completely sure he needed to even settle the score. No extras.

Win Win (R, 2011, Fox)
Water-treading lawyer-slash-wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) needs money. His client (Burt Young as Leo), who is suffering from the onset of dementia while his daughter goes AWOL, needs a guardian. The state needs to pay out $1,500 monthly to whomever is Leo’s guardian, and can you see where this is going? Mike can — until Leo’s 16-year-old grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up and inadvertently gums everything up. To a point, the gumming extends to the movie itself as well as the lives of its characters. “Win Win” begins as Mike’s story and possibly Leo’s story, but before long it’s Kyle’s world and everyone else just lives in it. Kyle’s character is the hinge in “Win’s” narrative doorway, and both he and the actor who play him are pleasant enough to have around. But “Win” so quickly, forcefully and amusingly establishes Mike and Leo as such magnetic characters that it’s hard to watch them cede the focus even if the movie has no choice. Fortunately, Kyle’s ascension doesn’t result in Mike being completely marginalized, and while Leo isn’t quite so lucky, the few lines he gets in act three are some of the movie’s best. Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, Sundance 2011 footage, music video.

The Event: The Complete Series (NR, 2010, Universal)
The art of the slow bombshell drop is tricky enough in a two-hour movie. When two hours balloons into 22 episodes, even a gold standard like “Lost” can drag its feet. And when you’re trying to spread out the impact after having the shortsighted gall to call your show “The Event,” just forget it. “The Event’s” premise, which won’t be spoiled here, isn’t a bad setup for a show, and the first episode’s revelation of where this show is going is fun and suspenseful in exactly the right way. But subsequent episodes, which shift between three primary timelines to peel back a storyline with 50 years of history preinstalled, can’t maintain that pace. Too many characters appear and do things that will make you scratch your head or shrug your shoulders, and entirely too much of “The Event’s” events center around exposition that grows less enticing the more detailed it gets. There’s payoff lurking at the end of this shortened show’s arc, but it’s clear that even with cancellation after one season, this is — at best — a good miniseries idea that had no business carrying on this long.
Contents: 22 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes feature and an alternate story for one character.

Games 8/23: Deus Ex: Human Revolution, The Adventures of Shuggy, Anomaly Warzone Earth HD

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Eidos Montreal/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (intense violence, blood, sexual themes, strong language, drug reference, use of alcohol)
Price: $60

When we greeted “Deus Ex” as a liberator from a first-person shooter genre that badly needed a growth spurt, few probably predicted history would repeat itself 11 years later.

But here we are, neck-deep in a genre that’s reverted to old habits and covered them up with cinematic flimflam. And here’s “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” which holds so true to its pedigree that what was amazing then is amazing all over again now.

This isn’t immediately apparent, because while “Revolution” quickly establishes itself as a cover shooter — with a third-person perspective while in cover —  it also makes a point to let you know that attacking enemies at the front door is as viable a tactic as using stealth to neutralize them from behind. The cover interface makes complete use of the controller and requires some finger gymnastics when “Revolution’s” other systems are in play, but once you acquaint yourself, all the pieces — responsive controls, satisfying gunplay, intelligent enemy A.I. and an intuitive cover mechanic — are there.

“Revolution” complements this encouragement of freedom with a design that very ably suits it. In place of the same old corridors are open-ended areas with multiple paths straight through and around enemies. A tense and deceptively deep hacking minigame allows access to locked pathways, security cameras, sensitive data and other access restrictions, and you can move certain objects to create your own cover when cover isn’t readily available.

But it isn’t just “Revolution’s” levels that branch: It’s the whole game. True to the series’ lineage, “Revolution” operates around a role-playing core that’s built to accommodate your preferred attack style. In this instance, you can use experience points — accrued through everything from kills to finding secret passageways to completing side missions — to purchase bionic augmentations. (The story, set 25 years before the first game, explains all.)

“Revolution’s” augmentation selection is large and wonderfully diverse. Stealthy players can purchase an augmentation that briefly turn them invisible, for instance, while other augmentations let you see through walls, lift extremely heavy objects, and read other characters’ minds when in conversation with them. (Verbal manipulation, thanks to a great dialogue tree system, goes a long way here, which is why “Revolution” stocks an entire augmentation shelf dedicated to social mastery.)

The long list of augmentations works in concert with open-world hub cities and a massive, branching storyline — roughly five times the size of a typical shooter — to create an experience that truly feels tailor-made. Fans of the original expect nothing less, but if you’re new here, “Revolution’s” scope and freedom allowance might shock you. Engage in each cities’ side quests and dive into the ridiculous amount of discoverable exposition hiding behind locked doors and firewalls, and you’re looking at a 40-plus-hour investment that’s almost universally polished.

It’s merely a shame “Revolution” loses itself so badly whenever things come to a head in a boss fight. In contrast to everything that precedes and follows, these boss fights — enclosed shootouts against a massively overpowered enemy who can withstand an inhuman amount of firepower and has no issues firing explosives willy-nilly and unloading his or her own augmentations without rhythm or limitation — are a horridly rude awakening, especially if you’ve adopted a stealthy approach and don’t carry a ton of ammo. Outside of their infrequency, there is nothing good to say about these encounters, so you’ll just have to endure them to get back to everything else that makes “Revolution” so incredible.


The Adventures of Shuggy
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Smudged Cat Games/Valcon Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (animated blood, comic mischief)
Price: $10

It happens every summer. Amid a glut of terrific downloadable games that fly off the virtual shelves under the generous promotional umbrella that is Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade, there drifts a ridiculously unlucky game that, despite being good or even great, gets instantly and thoroughly buried simply for releasing shortly before or after the campaign runs its course.

This year’s dishonoree, “The Adventures of Shuggy,” is especially unfortunate, because despite an outer shell that would suggest otherwise, it arguably outclasses the entire 2011 Summer of Arcade crop.

If you’re type of player to which “Shuggy” most explicitly caters, it may not even be close.

It certainly doesn’t look that way. “Shuggy” tells a cute but simple story about a vampire named Shuggy and the haunted castle he inherited and must clean out, and while the cartoony graphics are pleasant and certainly sufficient, they won’t drop jaws the way the likes of “Bastion” and “From Dust” can. Most of the game’s levels span no larger than a single screen, and the overriding goal of each level — collect all the gems — isn’t exactly groundbreaking.

But if you confuse the Flash-style graphics, bite-sized levels and older-than-Atari objective for a lack of ambition on “Shuggy’s” part, you’re letting vanity fool you. Simple and cute though the whole thing seems, the game is a beast in terms of physical and intellectual challenge.

Though the overriding gem-collecting objective holds steady, “Shuggy’s” gameplay parameters rather drastically vary from level to level. Sometimes, it’s 2D platforming at its most classic — jumping across pits and dodging enemies to collect each gem in a single run. But sometimes those levels take place upside down, asking you to be just as spry while also demanding you push the control stick left when old habits want to push it right. Occasionally, you have to do it at a 90-degree angle.

Other times, “Shuggy” asks you to rotate the entire level so that Shuggy lands on platforms and not spikes once gravity kicks back in. Frequently, you’ll have to time a jump while simultaneously rotating a level.

Yet other levels task you with manipulating multiple Shuggies, who must work in tandem to unlock some brilliantly devious cause-and-effect puzzles. They may or may not be observing the same laws of gravity while working together. Other times, when controlling one Shuggy, a crack in time will create ghost Shuggies, who both can help you (if you time certain cooperative actions to the cracks) or kill you (if you run into them and disrupt the space/time continuum).

These variants represent a sample of the laws obeyed in “Shuggy’s” 100-plus single-player levels, which liberally mix these and other parameters to create some absolutely maniacal challenges.

For the right crowd, though, the difficulty level is just right. “Shuggy” is a demanding endeavor, insofar that you have to collect every gem in one run without making any fatal mistakes. But the game takes a page from the similarly engrossing “Super Meat Boy” by providing unlimited lives and instantly restarting a level whenever you fail. The capacity for frustration is still there, but it’s extremely short-lived when you immediately can pop back up and give it another shot.

For those who enjoy working together, “Shuggy” includes an additional 36 levels that require a second player to complete. The co-op levels are offline only, but “Shuggy” includes online support by way of leaderboards and a two-player competitive gem race (also available offline) that dials down the intellectual demands in favor of a mindless but enjoyably frantic scramble.


Anomaly Warzone Earth HD
Reviewed for: iPad
Also available for: iPhone/iPod Touch, Windows PC, Mac,
From: 11 bit studios/Chillingo
iTunes Store Rating: 12+ (frequent/intense cartoon or fantasy, infrequent/mild alcohol, tobacco, or drug use or references, infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes)
Price: $4 for iPad, $2-$10 for other versions

Tower defense games are a perfect fit for the iPad, which is why there are way too many of them coming out at once for the genre’s good. But if you’re hungry for a change of pace instead of a break, “Anomaly Warzone Earth” flips the script by giving you the keys to the offense — a convoy of tanks, mechs and other vehicles — and tasking you with blasting your way through an alien defense. The general rules of tower defense apply, but rather than lay out towers and turrets, you’re assembling a convoy lineup and drawing a path for it to follow through and around the streets of Baghdad’s urban battlegrounds. Vehicle upgrades and repairs replace tower upgrades, a handful of power-ups let you devise temporary defenses for your offense, and when all else fails, a terrific Tactical View interface lets you re-chart your course at any time. Nothing “Earth” does represents a seismic shift for tower defense, but the change of possession is a welcome twist for a genre that could use a few of them. The game’s strategic interfaces are intuitively polished, the in-game action is really visually impressive, and the maps grow considerably elaborate as the campaigns — one traditional and built around a storyline, the other driven more by scores, enemy waves, time limits and survival — progress.

DVD 8/16/11: September 11th Memorial Edition, The Conspirator, Dexter S5, Bodyguards and Assassins, The Best and the Brightest, Outcasts

September 11th Memorial Edition (NR, 2011, History)
Ten years of bickering, politicking and capitalizing have relentlessly diluted Sept. 11’s impact and too frequently turned it into a prop or punchline, and the looming 10-year-anniversary means the uncomfortable proliferation of what by any other name is merchandise. But even if the latter issue makes you understandably uncomfortable, a return visit to “102 Minutes That Changed America” might be the starkest and most efficient way to toss all that baggage away. “September 11th Memorial Edition” is a collection of terrific documentaries, including “Hotel Ground Zero” (the story of the bustling Marriott WTC Hotel that resided between the two towers), “The Miracle of Stairway B” (accounts of firefighters, police officers and office workers who survived the attack) and “The Day the Towers Fell” (accounts from eyewitnesses and amateur/professional photographers). But the rightful centerpiece of the collection is “102 Minutes,” which eschews narrators, hosts and interviews and simply runs a chronological roll of unfiltered footage taken by amateurs who simply had a camcorder on hand from the time the first plane hit to when the second tower fell. More than campaign speeches and (planned) memorials, it’s this footage — candid, terrifying and foaming with dread when one bad turn is about to give way to another — that drills home the horror of the day. If you’ve lost touch with how you felt on that day, this will bring you right back.
Extra: “I-Witness to 9/11,” a behind-the-scenes feature for “102 Minutes.”

The Conspirator (PG-13, 2011, Lions Gate)
“Uplifting” may be the wrong word to describe “The Conspirator,” which dramatizes what happens when a Civil War hero (James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken) is tasked with defending the only woman (Robin Wright as Mary Surratt) the U.S. government has deemed complicit in President Lincoln’s assassination. Then again, maybe it is. “The Conspirator” sticks to the script as history wrote it, so if you’re already familiar with Surratt’s military trial and subsequent fate, you can rest assured the ending hasn’t been doctored for dramatic effect. Rather, the movie engenders interest with the way it depicts the standstill between a conflicted lawyer who wants to uphold the Constitution and a post-assassination country and government foaming at the mouth for retribution. “The Conspirator” doesn’t editorialize or play advocate for Surratt, nor does even Aiken ever express considerable confidence in his client’s innocence. But the story it tells of Aiken’s efforts to keep the Constitution in focus is extraordinary, and the way the film’s finishing scene ties it together and relates it to today is, if not outright uplifting, an affirmation of a system whose failings get more attention than its merits do.
Extras: Director commentary, feature-length documentary “The Conspirator: The Plot to Kill Lincoln,” 11 behind-the-scenes features, photo gallery, introduction to The American Film Co.

Dexter: The Fifth Season (NR, 2010, Showtime)
Admittedly, the concept of Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) enjoying a lengthy, stable marriage was a bit farfetched. But even by the skewed metrics that constitute what Dexter considers normal, the speed and means with which he returns to the single life had no choice but to leave some bruises. Fortunately, Dexter’s bad news is good news for his show, which uses this occasion to bring its titular character back to his serial-killing basics. The bizarro-world  family drama that comprised “Dexter’s” fourth season was a terrifically successful foray into uncharted waters, but it’s just as fun to see Dexter flying solo and as hungry for vengeance and blood as he was in the show’s earlier seasons. Lest you worry the formula has grown stale, worry not: The show’s week-to-week storylines still have a healthy supply of edge and ingenuity, and season five’s new wrinkles — a potential love interest (Julia Stiles) with her own appetite for payback, and the most damaging cracks yet in Dexter’s secret identity — find the show as much in top form as it’s ever been.
Contents: 12 episodes, plus two freebie episodes each of new Showtime shows “The Borgias” and “Episodes.” Additional content — cast interviews and the first two episodes of “Californication’s” fourth season — is available only via Showtime’s E-Bridge software, which requires an Internet-capable PC to use.

Bodyguards and Assassins (PG-13, 2009, Indomina/Vivendi)
Should you assume “Bodyguards and Assassins” needs all 139 of its minutes to carefully comb through the minutiae of its premise — Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen’s looming visit to Hong Kong, and the effect his visit will have on the swelling cry for democracy across China — you would be forgiven. In fact, that’s pretty much what happens during the opening hour, which keeps the action to a minimum and almost exclusively uses that time to very effectively develop numerous characters who want change, will do whatever it takes to quell change, or sit conflicted on the fence. But this likely isn’t what you’ll remember once hour two gets underway. “Assassins” takes place over a four-day run-up to Sun’s visit, and while the “hour-long battle sequence” proclamation on the box is an exaggeration, the culmination that comprises the movie’s second half — sending bodyguards ordered to protect Sun into battle against assassins bent on killing him — absolutely delivers all the same. “Assassins” fluidly distributes its action across the spectrum, employing crowded streets and spectacular set pieces one moment and striving for something far more intimate the next, and its creativity is off the page. Lots of blood inevitably sheds, but those deaths mean that much more when we know so much about who they are and what they’re fighting for. That’s a lot to accomplish even with an expanded runtime, and “Assassins” doesn’t waste a minute in getting it done.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features, cast/crew interviews.

The Best and the Brightest (R, 2010, Flatiron Film Co.)
Jeff and Samantha (Neil Patrick Harris and Bonnie Somerville, respectively) are abandoning Delaware for the Manhattan lifestyle, and once they enroll their four-year-old daughter in a top kindergarten program, the bubbling dissatisfaction that sparked the move will just disappear. Only problem: The schools have absurd entrance requirements and waiting lists — so much so that every mom applying alongside Samantha is still pregnant with the child they’re enrolling. One trip to a well-connected consultant (Amy Sedaris) and a couple really big misunderstandings later, we’re knee-deep in a comedy that elevates the engendering of conflicted feelings to an art form. It’s too much to call “The Best and the Brightest’s” premise off-putting, because the movie makes such a mockery of this very real charade that it’s clear it wants to be on our side. But “Brightest” tries so transparently hard to sell Jeff and Samantha as likably humble people that even if you’re here for the laughs, it’s hard to ignore the voice in your head that asks why such grounded people would even partake in this farce, much less go all in. “Brightest” seems to agree, but its stance wavers so wildly toward the end that it’s hard to tell for sure. You can, of course, ignore that voice and enjoy the hijinks for what they are, and “Brightest” rewards you with a few brilliant lines and some legitimately funny gags. Just be prepared to do a little more work than is normally necessary to enjoy a silly comedy.
Extras: Director/co-writer commentary, audition footage, deleted scenes, cast interviews, cast/crew Q&A.

Outcasts (NR, 2010, BBC)
Let’s try this again, shall we? “Outcasts” represents the latest attempt to tell a story of humanity’s second chance, and in this instance, the title’s origins is completely relative. “Outcasts” could be a term of endearment for the settlers pioneering life on a clean new planet, Carpathia, five light-years from Earth. But it just as easily could refer to the remaining citizens of a war-ravaged Earth, who, because of status, must wait their turn to ride a shuttle away from their uninhabitable home. Then again, it could refer to the Advanced Cultivars, a group of artificially-bred superhumans who, after a plague that killed most of the planet’s children, have been left in exile. Nobody said creating a civilization would be easy. Unfortunately, neither is creating a show about creating a civilization. “Outcasts” gets off to a wobbly start in trying to lay its pieces out, and some of its characters remain vanilla even several episodes on. Enough interesting characters emerge to gradually let some fun storylines in, and the clearer it becomes that Carpathia has some nasty surprises of its own in store, the more engaging the sum of all these parts becomes. But “Outcasts” doesn’t really come into its own until well into its eight-episode first season, and the BBC’s cancellation of the show means a second season won’t parlay that momentum into something bigger and better.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, set tour.

Games 8/16/11: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, Labyrinth, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: UTV Ignition
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $60

During its opening moments, “El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” sees fit to send you down a path where you not only must fail, but will face what initially resembles a “Game Over” screen.

It isn’t. Rather, it’s your first definitive clue that “Metatron,” while a product of familiar influences, has designs to take those influences down some wonderfully unique new avenues.

Fundamentally, “Metatron” is an action game in the same ilk as “God of War” or “Bayonetta” — fixed camera angles, an agile mix of melee and ranged combat, and a control scheme that’s overwhelmingly dependent on hitting the same attack button ad nauseam.

The difference here is that mashing those buttons won’t get you as far as will tapping them rhythmically. There’s no beat to follow, but keeping one in your head will result in attacks far more powerful than the stock manuevers.

“Metatron” puts the combat (and the need to employ a similarly measured defense) to great effect by giving you fewer enemies to fight but making each one formidable. You also only carry one weapon at a time, which means that if you want to switch from melee to ranged combat, you have to disarm an enemy with the weapon you want and take it from him. It’s a dangerous approach, but it’s far more satisfying than simply swapping weapons like you can do in every other game.

“Metatron’s” excellent treatment of stock enemies comes at no expense to its bosses. To the contrary, its treatment of the seven fallen angels whose reign of terror you must end — “Metatron” is a very creatively liberated interpretation of the Book of Enoch — is magnificent.

In contrast to the normal pattern of boss introductions, “Metatron” introduces you to all seven angels before sending you down swinging against one of them. From there, the fallen angels make frequent appearances in battles you can’t completely win, fostering rivalries that culminate in boss fights that are significantly more satisfying to win after all that buildup. “Metatron” unfurls its story at a pace that’s recognizable but unpredictable, and you’ll face off against some angels multiple times over multiple chapters before getting your chance to put them away for good.

The confidence and fluidity with which “Metatron” plays with convention is apparent everywhere else — in the soundtrack, the narration (how does a guardian angel talking to God on a smartphone sound?), and the brilliant way the game sometimes abandons the third dimension and illustrates important story points as a fantastically fun sidescrolling platformer.

“Metatron’s” 3D platforming sequences are no slouch, either, thanks in equal part to fluid controls and some ingeniously weird level designs that twist, elevate and sometimes form under your feet. Another gameplay shift — occurring exactly once in the middle of the story — is so starkly different and stupidly fun that even hinting at what it is would just be wrong.

But nowhere is “Metatron” more confident than with regard to its visual presentation, which emerges as the showpiece of a game that’s full of them. Each level flaunts a dramatically different style — white skies and dynamic violet landscapes here, a living sheet of canvas there, the most electric worlds Kevin Flynn never created in between.

The visual variety makes an unpredictable game that much more surprising, but it’s the insane skill with which “Metatron” brings them to life that makes it impossible for even screenshots to do the whole thing justice. Whether altering character states, swapping dimensions or continuously redrawing entire horizons as you race through them, “Metatron’s” animation drops jaws with a relentless brilliance that has very few peers.


For: Nintendo DS
From: Mentor Interactive/dtp young entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)
Price: $20

Mentor Interactive has talked a good game with its thinkSMART video game imprint, which purportedly bestows its blessing on games only when they achieve a satisfactory standard with regard to educational as well as entertainment value.

“Labyrinth” is among the latest crop of games (the others being “Scotland Yard,” also for the Nintendo DS, and “Crazy Machines” for the Wii) to bear the tag. And while it isn’t much at all to look at or listen to, it definitely passes muster as a puzzle game that doesn’t take its audience’s intelligence lightly.

Even describing “Labyrinth” without making it sound impossibly complicated is a bit tricky. Essentially, you and up to three others are pawns in a disconnected, maze-like labyrinth that’s littered with treasure. Each player is after a specific piece of treasure, and with each turn, you can add a maze piece to any edge of the labyrinth that “pushes” the opposite edge away and transforms the corridor arrangement of the entire labyrinth. The object is to clear a pathway to your treasure while preventing others from doing the same first. Each player has a handful of treasures to collect in order, and the first to nab them all wins the match.

(If that sounds like a complete mess, rest assured that it makes sense after you see it in action. The video game also is based on the board game of the same name, so if you’re familiar with the board game, you can just ignore the preceding attempted explanation.)

Were “Labyrinth” a solitary endeavor, it’d still be challenging. Having to create a path two feet in front of you while also modifying the labyrinth in a way that won’t stifle you three turns later isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s just impossible. There’s a balance between thinking three steps ahead and making a compromise for the immediate greater good, and you’ll occasionally curse yourself when you make a move that simply reveals a much better move after the labyrinth shifts.

But the challenge takes on another tenor entirely with an adversary sharing the maze with you. (“Labyrinth” supports up to four players via local single-card wireless play or by passing a single DS around, and it supplies up to three A.I. opponents when human competition isn’t available.)

As you might expect, the internal battle between planning and reacting grows that much more complicated when opponents interrupt your process with their own turns. Occasionally, you need to just abandon your own hunt and spend a turn shifting the board to block opponents or box them in. You don’t know which treasure they’re specifically hunting for, nor do they know what you’re after, so it helps also to pay attention to their moves, discern what they’re after, and keep them off the path. If you can do that while simultaneously paving your own way, more power to you.

The immense amount of moving intellectual parts gives “Labyrinth” a formidable level of depth that defies the budget price and appearance. The game’s music is hard on the ears, the graphics are extremely rudimentary, and the quest mode’s storyline isn’t exactly a hotbed of compelling characters or high production values.

But all of that stuff — even the quest mode as a whole — feels like secondary dressing.

In a pleasantly surprising role reversal, it’s actually the Quick Play mode that gives “Labyrinth” its longest legs. Each new game introduces a randomly-generated maze — essentially running the level count into the gazillions — and you can customize the intelligence and number of opponents to tailor to your ability and/or appetite for punishment. Outside of opponent intelligence, which lies at the mercy of your friends, all that holds true for multiplayer as well.


Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: FuelCell/Gagne International
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $15

Exploring the atmosphere of “Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet” is akin to wandering around a country without knowing the language, and that’s where its genius lies. “Planet” marries traditional 2D space shooting gameplay with the kind of non-linear exploration found in the likes of “Metroid,” populating regions you visit early on with areas you can only access once you return later with a gadget that can pave the way. “Planet” isn’t as sharp as “Metroid” about keeping the backtracking to a minimum, and purely as a space shooter, it’s more good than great. But the game redeems itself not only with the variety of gadgets you eventually collect, but in the clever way it challenges you to figure out the right tool for every job. “Planet” almost completely eschews language in favor of symbols: Your object scanner uses icons to hint at which gadgets are useful where, but you’ll need to flex some ingenuity to decipher what these gadgets do and how they apply to any given situation. Even in the first area, the game spells nothing out for you. The minimalist approach works in tandem with a vector-esque visual presentation to give “Planet” a fresh identity, and it joins forces with some great puzzle design to do the exploration theme proud. Should you occasionally crave something a little more frantic, the Lantern Run mode — a score-based, co-operative (four players, local or online) survival mode which puts your ship on the run from considerably more dangerous enemies — will prove a nice and punishing change of pace.

DVD 8/9/11: Paul, Super, Clash, Your Highness, Mars Needs Moms, MASK TCS, Hey Arnold! S1, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles S9, El Perro y El Gato

Paul (R/NR, 2011, Universal)
No shortage of movies and television shows have hypothesized about what form our first encounter with an alien might take. In most, maybe all cases, it doesn’t look like what happens when Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) meet Paul, a stereotypical little green man who has lived in America for six decades and has — if his mastery of English, sarcasm and four-letter words is any indication — acclimated himself about as magnificently as can be expected from an alien on the lam from the government. But here’s the wonderful thing about “Paul:” As crude as its namesake can be, and as much fun as the movie sometimes has at the expense of alien abduction culture, every joke and swear it makes comes amid a bear-hug embrace of those tropes. “Paul” jokes because it loves, and a supremely confident script manages to continually veer between crude and sweet without feeling phony or forced. Things meander a bit during the obligatory chase in the last act, but “Paul” delivers a few surprises in its wake to bring everything home in a deeply satisfying (and, lets not forget, funny) way. Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Jason Bateman, Jane Lynch and Jeffrey Tambor, among a few more, also star.
Extras: Unrated and theatrical cuts, cast/crew commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, photo/storyboard/poster galleries.

Super (R, 2010, IFC Films)
Everything about the surface of “Super” — Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) wearing an adorably sorry superhero getup, the “Shut up, crime!” catchphrase, the inevitable promise of a nerdy failure turning into a small-time Batman, sidekick (Ellen Page as Boltie) and all — would seemingly position it as the cute, indie alternative to the big-budget bloody mess that was “Kick-Ass.” But there’s a reason you don’t judge a movie by its box art, and there’s also a reason “Super’s” box has an R where you might expect to see a PG-13. “Super’s” early going lives up to those early assumptions, and for a while, it seems primed to coast as a comedy that veers comfortably between being dryly, bleakly and goofily funny. But the change of mood that compels Frank to become Crimson Bolt brings with it a change of mood to “Super,” and while the sense of humor sticks around for the ride, the ensuing bonanza of absolutely ridiculous lust and bloodlust eventually matches “Kick-Ass” before leaving it completely in the dust. That isn’t necessarily great news, because “Super” doesn’t always know what to do with its new disposition. The story struggles to stay on the rails, and the way Crimson Bolt and Boltie’s tales end is bound to polarize people, who can argue endlessly over whether “Super” alienates its viewers or takes the kind of chances every movie should take. Both points have considerable merit, which means that, if nothing else, “Super” does far more with its premise than first impressions would imply.
Extras: Director/Wilson commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features, Crimson Bolt and Boltie invade SXSW.

Clash (R, 2009, Indomina/Vivendi)
A stolen hard drive contains the codes needed to operate Vietnam’s first satellite, and the race to retrieve it is on for a team of mercenaries who have their own motives (on top of a paycheck) for getting it back. Leading the pack is Trinh (Veronica Ngo), whose successful recovery of the drive will net the safe return of her kidnapped daughter. That’s a bit of a stretch, as is the involvement of Trinh’s reluctant teammates … and most everything else that happens from there. Honestly, the less you let “Clash’s” finer story points trouble you, the better off you’ll be. Cliches and logic holes aside, the gist — powerful people playing chess with dangerous mercenaries — is all you really need to understand. It’s also all “Clash” needs to set the table for a bounty of great action scenes by way of fistfight, gunfight, car chase and more. “Clash” looks great and moves beautifully, and if you treat the story like a table-setter instead of one of the courses, it’s a fast, fun time all the way through. In Vietnamese with English subtitles, though an English dub is available as an option.
Extras: Three behind-the-scenes features, music video.

Your Highness (R, 2011, Universal)
Though appearances would suggest otherwise, your enjoyment of “Your Highness” will come down to how much you like stupid humor more than how big a fan you are of the fantasy genre. “Highness” has some clever monster designs, and some of the action isn’t too shabby either. But as storytelling goes, this tale of two brothers — one (James Franco as Fabious) a valiant knight whose true love (Zooey Deschanel) has been cursed and kidnapped, the other (Danny McBride as Thadeous) an underachieving bum who must finally make something of himself to save his family and kingdom — follows the fantasy-by-numbers template you expect a parody to follow. Thing is, “Highness” doesn’t even really qualify as a parody, because it isn’t so much a sendup of fantasy films as it is a boilerplate story with toilet and stoner humor wedged in wherever possible. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because while “Highness” frequently lacks imagination, it has a knack for taking a tired gag and somehow still making it funny — not fall-out-of-your-seat hysterical, mind you, but funny all the same. Give credit to the cast, which has an infectiously great time hamming it up in a genre that normally would have nothing to do with most of them. Natalie Portman, Toby Jones, Justin Theroux and Rasmus Hardiker also star.
Extras: Unrated/theatrical cuts, director/McBride/Franco/Theroux commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.

Mars Needs Moms (PG, 2011, Disney)
Remember how Kevin got more than he bargained for when he idly wished his family away in “Home Alone?” Milo makes that look like child’s play when a throwaway “I wish you weren’t my mom” line gets the attention of Martians, who kidnap her (and, unwittingly, him) in the middle of the night. As the title implies, the Martians need a mom, and if Milo clearly doesn’t mind losing his, no harm done, right? If only. At the outset, “Mars Needs Moms” looks like your typical computer-animated movie with an amusing and potentially atypical high concept lying in wait. But while the children’s book on which it’s based found a way to thread the needle between dark, sweet and visually pleasing, the movie gets all kinds of lost. The book’s adorable Martians are reborn as creepy wastelanders, the images we take away from Mars include brain surgery, mass births and firing squads (complete with discarded bodies from executions past), and too much of the overall mood gets sucked into a vortex of violence, creepiness and scenery too dark to take advantage of the visual medium. “Moms” isn’t devoid of heart by any means, and there are a couple supporting characters who considerably lighten the mood when they’re in the picture. But their contributions can counter only so much of what overwhelmingly feels like a mistranslation and mishandling of a great idea.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Worth a Mention: Animated Edition
— “MASK: The Complete Series” (NR, 1985, Shout Factory): It wasn’t as big as “Transformers” or “G.I. Joe,” but this cartoon — about the Mobile Armored Strike Kommand task force’s attempt to bring down an international crime ring known fittingly as V.E.N.O.M. — had a loyal following (and awesome toy line) of its own. At long last, that following gets its due with this 12-disc set, which includes all 65 episodes and two retrospectives. As with all 1980s cartoons, “MASK” hasn’t aged as well as nostalgia would lead you to believe it has, but as with all 1980s cartoons, that hardly matters.
— “Hey Arnold! Season 1” (NR, 1996, Nickelodeon/Shout Factory): Yet another Nickelodeon classic makes its DVD debut. If Shout Factory applied for sainthood, no shortage of people who grew up in the 1990s would campaign on its behalf. Includes 20 episodes, no extras.
— “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete Season 9” (NR, 1995, Lions Gate): Yes, season nine. Believe it or not, there’s one more still to release. Includes eight episodes, no extras.
— “El Perro y El Gato” DVDs (NR, 2004, HBO): HBO isn’t exactly on PBS’ level with regard to children’s programming proliferation, but Dora the Explorer could learn a thing or two from the vastly more entertaining dog and cat duo in “El Perro y El Gato,” which teaches pre-schoolers vocabulary in two languages through stories, characters and a visual style that even adults could sit down and enjoy. With a new special airing in September, HBO is celebrating with the release of four two-episode DVD sets. The distribution method is baffling — each DVD runs between 18 and 24 minutes long, so why not fit all eight episodes in one set? — but if your library eventually carries these, they’re absolutely worth a look.

Games 8/9/11: From Dust, Phineas & Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension, Fruit Ninja Kinect

From Dust
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming later for: Playstation 3 and Windows PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)
Price: $15

“From Dust” is impressive — visually, conceptually, and simply for the intuitive way it distills playing god down to tossing sand and water around like a kid building a sandcastle.

Arguably most impressive, though, is the bold way it combines a genre synonymous with free-spirited aimlessness and the one thing — a ticking clock — that unnerves gamers unlike any other.

Framed like a real-time strategy game, “Dust” tasks you with utilizing nature and some divine tricks to guide a primitive civilization across lands teeming with tidal waves, volcanoes and other deadly natural phenomena.

Though there’s some light guidance regarding how you instruct your tribe to move from A to B, the brunt of your influence comes via terraforming — literally grabbing a variable clump of sand, water or lava and dropping it elsewhere.

The results of your rearrangements are impressively organic. Drop a handful of water in an arid desert, and it will dampen the area but not necessarily create a pool. Pour it near a shore, though, and the land credibly recedes. You’re mixing paints more than simply replacing one element with another, and “Dust” very believably blends them. It looks terrific, but more importantly, makes the game immediately intuitive despite touting a gameplay concept that’s mostly unprecedented.

Of course, those elements believably blend for worse as well as better. A clump of sand provides limited help in curbing a downstream tide, and while a handful of lava can cool into rock and dam a raging river, getting even a drop of that lava near vegetation can start a fire that torches a village. (You can, naturally, douse it with water if you act quickly.)

“Dust’s” levels eventually complement these basic functions with a handful of totems that grant limited-use powers — turning water into jelly for a brief stemming of tides, for instance, or the ability to suck matter into a vacuum without having to place it elsewhere — and a crop of trees with aquatic, flammable and explosive tendencies.

But before you’re introduced to any of this, “Dust” introduces you to a couple things — objectives and time limits — that are even rarer in this genre than exploding trees.

Before you panic, it’s worth noting that “Dust” doesn’t stick a clock in the corner and ask you to fully inhabit an area before time expires. Rather, the time limits intermittently appear as warnings of pending disaster. You have all the time you need to finish a level, but when the game tells you, for instance, that a tidal wave will hit in six minutes, you’d best do what needs doing to keep your people from being washed away.

The tension infusion isn’t always welcome, because when your people are on the move, they don’t always find the best path from A to B. “Dust” controls sufficiently with a controller, but having to simultaneously babysit your tribe while terraforming on the other side of the map can
engender some righteous aggravation when neither man nor nature want to cooperate. (Fortunately, your people tend to cooperate far more than not.)

Those momentary slips, along with the lack of an open-ended sandbox mode, comprise the two biggest strikes against “Dust.” But the prioritization of tension and progression — through both a campaign and a great collection of unlockable, score-based challenge levels — makes for a better, fresher and more exciting game than if “Dust” simply adopted the same anything-goes approach as every other god game.


Phineas & Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: High Impact Games/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)
Price: $40

Games made with kids in mind have grown easier at a needlessly fast pace over the years. With “Phineas & Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension,” we’ve finally broken through the bounds of “easy” and washed ashore on “insulting,” and it’s to the full detriment of what otherwise could have been a pretty cool platforming game.

“Dimension,” for those unfamiliar, is based on the movie of the same name, which itself spawns from the “Phineas & Ferb” cartoon. If you’re familiar with the cartoon, you’ll appreciate how well the game mimics its look and personality. If you’re not, the game does an adequate (and funny) job of bringing you up to speed with the cast and the story, which essentially is an elaborate excuse to send our heroes running and jumping through different dimensions.

“Dimension’s” gameplay somewhat resembles that of the Lego games — a lot of running, jumping and combating across levels that aren’t quite 2D but aren’t completely 3D either. Like those games, there are two playable characters on screen at once, and while playing cooperatively with a friend (offline only) is the ideal way to go, the A.I. does a nice job with the second character if another player isn’t available. (You also can swap freely between both characters when playing alone).

The different dimensions translate perfectly as a video game, allowing “Dimensions” to send players into levels constructed from gelatin, balloons, garden gnomes and even old-timey monochrome film. The core gameplay doesn’t deviate dramatically between these areas, but the themes provide the basis for each level to flaunt its own share of clever obstacles and puzzles.

Problem is, “Dimension’s” obstacles don’t really feel like obstacles, nor do its puzzles feel like puzzles or the fights like a fight, because the difficultly of all three is just absurdly low.

Between puzzles, “Dimension” frequently crowds the screen with a half-dozen or more enemies, but they’re so inadequate that you can fight sloppily and still regularly come away unscathed. Though combat looks chaotic, the only hard part about it is actually losing a fight without purposely doing so. Health packs are rampant despite no such need for them, and should you somehow manage to perish, shaking the controller pops you right back up.

Everything else gets the same padded-wall treatment. Fall off a platform? No problem: The game resets your position without penalty. Stumped on a puzzle? No, you’re not, because “Dimension’s” interface and dialogue, while often amusing, spells out everything you need to do. The game occasionally changes things up — most commonly in the form of rail-shooter sequences aboard a jetpack — but these are no more challenging than the main game.

“Dimensions” looks great, sounds great and moves fluidly despite the wealth of onscreen activity. Your weapons are satisfyingly upgradable, and you can even modify the sounds they make when deployed.

But the excitement wanes when the sense of peril flatlines this hard. Even kids, unless hopelessly inept and allergic to adversity of even the enjoyable kind, will be bored by how gently this one guides them.

If you remain interested, the PS3 version is the way to go: It looks crisper, obviously, and it includes four episodes of the cartoon on the disc. Just don’t make anything of “Dimension’s” Playstation Move support: Outside of pressing the Move button instead of X, the game plays exactly the same as it does with a standard controller.


Fruit Ninja Kinect
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade, Kinect required)
From: Halfbrick Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

It took nine months for Kinect to get Xbox Live Arcade representation, but the first game it gets is, while not overly adventurous, a perfect fit. “Fruit Ninja Kinect” migrates the massively popular mobile game (and somewhat obscure arcade port) to Kinect, and it’s exactly what you expect: Instead of swiping your finger across a tiny screen, you’re viciously chopping the air to slice fruit as it flies into view all around you. If that sounds mindless, bite your tongue: There’s a science to maximizing your score by slicing three or more fruits in one chop without hitting fatal bombs or letting stray fruit drop, and “FNK’s” multiple modes — Classic, a bombs-free Zen mode, an Arcade mode laden with powerups and score multipliers, a Challenge mode that shuffles all three — each utilize that science in maddeningly addictive ways. The short length per game — a minute to 90 seconds, typically — makes it easy to keep replaying for better scores, and all those replays add up to a much better workout than the mobile game can provide. As with all Kinect games, “FNK” occasionally misreads a motion, but the slip-ups are surprisingly infrequent considering how much chaos can ensue. “FNK’s” only online functionality comes via leaderboards, but its two-player local multiplayer options — a co-op arcade mode and a side-by-side battle for the best score — are a riot (and, again, surprisingly proficient with regard to motion detection).

DVD 8/2/11: Exporting Raymond, The Music Never Stopped, Dumbstruck, Rio, The Perfect Game, Quarantine 2: Terminal

Exporting Raymond (PG, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Anyone more than a little familiar with “Everybody Loves Raymond” knows that it wasn’t an easy sell, nor was it an immediate hit. But if series creator Phil Rosenthal still has nightmares about the trials of selling “Raymond” to American television audiences, his attempts to do it all over again in Russia — nearly from scratch, with a Russian cast, Russian crew and Russia-fied translations of “Raymond’s” scripts — will leave those bad dreams in the dust. “Exporting Raymond” follows the year-plus-long process in pretty workmanlike fashion, but that’s all it needs to do. The immense cultural divide between the two countries, and the lengths to which that divide goes to humble and eventually demoralize Rosenthal while he watches his creation go through a wringer he doesn’t understand, provides all the material the film needs to fuel itself the whole way though. Rosenthal does a terrific job of emceeing the whole production with some very funny narration, but it’s the shots of him on the brink of total defeat that provide “Raymond” with its best and most honest moments. If you’ve ever wanted to see how the sausage gets made — and, specifically, served to an audience that would rather eat zharkoye — you absolutely have to see this.
Extras: Two uncut episodes of “Everybody Loves Kostya” (and the corresponding episodes of “Raymond” for comparison’s sake), Rosenthal commentary, deleted scenes.

The Music Never Stopped (PG, 2011, Lions Gate)
The good news for Dianne and Henry (Julia Ormond and J.K. Simmons)? After a roughly 20-year separation, they’ve found their son Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci). The bad news? A brain tumor, while benign, has left him with an unusual case of amnesia that prevents him from forming new memories past a certain point in his life. And the complicated news? That point in time closely coincides with the events that caused the separation that grew into an estrangement. Before you dismiss the premise as  trite or assume it’s condemned to drown in a sea of melodrama, know first that “The Music Never Stopped” is based on the true story of how the use of music — music Gabriel loved and Henry associated with their fallout — built a bridge in Gabriel’s mind that let him make memory connections that otherwise were lost to him.  “Music” gets its feet wet with regrets about a past that can’t be changed and relationships that can’t fully be repaired, but its lively embrace of these methods — and the separate effects they have on Henry and Gabriel — keep it miles away from downer territory. No one is ever too old to come of age, and while Gabriel remains the focus of the story, some of “Music’s” most brilliant scenes are those of a 65-year-old man doing his darndest to understand and embrace an amazing generational soundtrack two decades after everyone else found it.
Extras: Director commentary, interviews with Oliver Sacks ( who wrote “The Last Hippie,” on which the film is based), deleted scenes.

Dumbstruck (PG, 2010, Magnolia)
The quickest way to transform a comedian into a social pariah? Stick a puppet on his or her hand. But as evidenced by “Dumbstruck,” which begins amid a sea of seasoned and would-be ventriloquists at the 31st annual Vent Haven Convention in Kentucky, the perception undermines the reality. To the contrary — or perhaps in response to the culture borne out of those perceptions — the profession has shaped into a massive, globe-encompassing family that sees no boundaries between status, success, fame and even ability. This is but one of the revelations laid bare over a year in the lives of five “vents” whose stories — one’s 13, another nearly homeless, while another stands on the precipice of a million-dollar payday — could scarcely be more different. The bulk of “Dumbstruck’s” storytelling focuses on the lives of these performers, but their passion for ventriloquism is such that their profession is deeply and relentlessly intertwined into just about everything that constitutes their character. As insights into a passion go, it’s as enlightening and entertaining as they come, veering between process and obsession at a pace that makes the whole thing completely relatable if you think it’s crazy and still kind of crazy even if you get it. Perhaps you have to be a vent to truly understand one, but the illuminating window “Dumbstruck” opens for all makes it as good a documentary as there ever has been about the pursuit of an unconventional dream.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes.

Rio: Two-Disc Party Edition (G, 2011, Fox)
To borrow a little “Peter Pan” wisdom, all of what happens in “Rio” has happened before, and it will all happen again. Perhaps there will never be another character exactly like Blu, a domesticated exotic bird whose kidnapping gives him a taste of the wild life while his owner frantically searches for him during a whirlwind first trip to Rio de Janeiro. But the brief history of computer-animated movies is saturated with characters who share a distressingly high amount of common ground with Blu, his owner, and the legion of other birds, animals and humans they meet along the way. “Rio’s” story is a who’s who of safe choices — spontaneous music montage here, false peril there, numerous pop culture references in between — and even the fish-out-of-water premise was done better mere weeks earlier in “Rango.” None of this is to suggest “Rio” is anywhere near bad: Blu and his friends are a generally likable bunch, the movie is visually vibrant, and it’s never at a loss for energy. As a kids movie that’s strictly for kids, it’s as safe a bet as all the safe bets it makes. But “Rio” has no aspirations to be anything beyond exactly what you expect it to be, so don’t go in expecting too much.
Extras: Interactive “Explore the World of Rio” feature, four behind-the-scenes features, Carnival Dance-O-Rama, deleted scene, two music videos, jukebox, “Angry Birds Rio” level pack (PC, Mac, iOS, Android).

The Perfect Game (PG, 2009, Image Entertainment)
If your wish is to cynically pick a movie to pieces, “The Perfect Game” — which tells the true story of the Monterrey, Mexico baseball team that surprised everybody while making a run for the 1957 Little League World Series — offers no shortage of targets at which to hack away. The kids aren’t the greatest bunch of thespians you’ll ever meet. Some characters feel more like storyline props than actual characters. Those storylines — whether predictable, melodramatic, rushed or awkwardly juxtaposed against one another — are imperfect in their own right, and it’s hard not to wonder how loosely “Game” plays with the true story in the name of maximum dramatic effect. Still, if there ever was a handbook on how to produce a movie that’s better than the sum of its parts, “Game” could be on the cover. That’s  largely thanks to the true story, in which a group of kids with no formal training, no field and barely any equipment forms not only into a team, but the first team to truly challenge the United States’ LLWS stranglehold. But everything that works against “Game” also has a knack for working in its favor. The kids can’t necessarily act, but they’re having such a blast that it almost doesn’t matter. And the missing filter that leaves some storylines prone to criticism also allows “Game” to embrace the game of baseball without reservation and to a wholly infectious degree. For fans of the perfect game, the understanding of what makes baseball so special far exceeds the need to keep that understanding in check.
Extras: Director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, cast/crew interviews, music montage.

Quarantine 2: Terminal (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
You can be polite and read this review in full, but who are we kidding? If you know even a scrap about what “Quarantine 2: Terminal” is about, you know it inside out. “Terminal” makes a case for paying attention by setting itself on a plane that’s in flight before hell breaks loose. That could go all sorts of amazing ways. Problem is, “Terminal” can’t think of any, so it lands the plane a little more than 20 minutes in and plays out the rest of the movie on the ground. From there, the usual suspects emerge: People turn feral, the main characters survive by the skin of their teeth, and a story unfolds about a manmade virus that fell into the wrong hands. Second verse, same as the first, the only major difference being that “Terminal” looks like a normal movie instead of a collection of found footage like the first (to say nothing of the better “[REC]” movies from which the original “Quarantine” was remade). It’s gory, loud and tense, but the great pains it takes to take no chances whatsoever makes it a wholly forgettable also-ran. No extras.

Games 8/2/11: Pac-Man & Galaga Dimensions, Call of Juarez : The Cartel, Trucks and Skulls NITRO

Pac-Man & Galaga Dimensions
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, fantasy violence)
Price: $40

Dual screens aside, Nintendo’s 3DS still has one advantage over its trendier, phone-call-making portable competition, and it isn’t the 3D gimmick.

Rather — and as “Pac-Man Tilt” ably demonstrates — it’s the ability to combine tilt and touch controls with real, tactile buttons and put all three into simultaneous, chaotic play.

“Tilt” represents one-seventh of “Pac-Man & Galaga Dimensions,” which combines five other games and a silly “Pac-Man” movie into a package that’s both great fun and noticeably deficient.

For many, the star attractions will be the games they’ve played before. “Dimensions” includes arcade ports of the original “Pac-Man” and “Galaga,” both of which play perfectly despite not being an ideal fit for the 3DS’ horizontal screens. “Dimensions” amusingly compensates by allowing you to view the action through a mock cabinet, curved CRT monitor effect and all. Everything still looks a little small, but not so much that the games are hard to play.

“Dimensions” also includes the “Pac-Man Championship Edition” and “Galaga Legions” reboots. Given that these newer games were designed for widescreen displays and analog joysticks, their ports to the 3DS feel more natural. The only downside is the hardware’s fault: That 3DS joypad isn’t as precise as a 360 or PS3 controller’s joystick, and you’ll occasionally pay for that in “PMCE” with your life.

If you have a question right now, it’s probably regarding why “Dimensions” includes those two games but not “Pac-Man Championship Edition DX” or “Galaga Legions DX,” both of which released to even greater acclaim than their predecessors received. There’s no good answer other than the likelihood of Namco holding them so it can double-dip with a second compilation. That’s unfortunate, but the original reboots hold up awfully well, so it only partially stings.

Instead, “Dimensions” reserves those spots for two new games that take specific advantage of the 3DS hardware.

“Galaga 3D Impact” re-imagines “Galaga” as a first-person rail shooter, and you can use either the accelerometer or joypad to aim and shoot down contemporary representations of the “Galaga” waves you know and despise.

The new viewpoint is no replacement for traditional 2D “Galaga,” especially as presented in “Legions,” but “Impact” easily fulfills its mission as a challenging throw-in whose aim is to turn an arcade classic on its ear for one time only. It sticks to imitating the things that make other rail shooters fun, and enhances the experience with an upgradable weapons tree that makes inspired use of the iconic “Galaga” tractor beam.

Ultimately, though, it’s “Tilt” — in which players run, jump, roll and ride as Pac-Man — that sheds enticing light on what’s possible when the 3DS’ control inputs are working in tandem.

At its core, “Tilt” controls like any other sidescrolling platformer with regard to running and jumping. But if you want to destroy certain obstacles and clear a level as quickly as possible for a higher score, you’ll want to tilt the DS and send Pac-Man into a roll that’s faster and more dangerous than his top running speed. A typical “Tilt” level also features platforms, cannons, bomb balls and other apparatuses that you must move and aim using the accelerometer — sometimes while simultaneously using the buttons to control Pac-Man and the touchscreen to activate a crucial power pellet.

“Tilt’s” 30 levels make increasingly frantic utilization of these tandems, and achieving top marks is a legitimately tricky good time. Had Namco gone whole hog with the idea and upped the level count to the triple digits, this sliver of “Dimensions” may have been worth the price of admission all by itself.


Call of Juarez : The Cartel
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Techland/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Price: $60

Those who stroll unknowingly into “Call of Juarez : The Cartel” are in for a serious case of video game culture shock. The third game in a series of gunslinging first-person westerns takes place in present-day Los Angeles amid a looming war between the United States and a Mexican drug cartel, and while the national park setting is slightly novel, the game’s first shootout would otherwise feel at home in that other series that has “Call of” in its title.

“Cartel’s” chief protagonist has ancestral ties to the previous game’s protagonist, but otherwise, this may as well be a new series altogether. If you played previous “Juarez” games precisely to get away from assault rifles, C4 explosives, launching rockets at choppers and small armies constantly firing on your position, “Cartel’s” embrace of all that in the first mission alone will leave you deeply dismayed.

Whatever attempt “Cartel” makes the justify this change isn’t helped any by its storytelling. The leap to present day doesn’t strive for novelty, opting for a pedestrian cops-versus-gangs story instead of something that calls back to the Old West or makes the main character a fish out of water. You can play as one of three characters — “Cartel’s” online co-op functionality lets you assign two other players to the other two — but all three are dull caricatures who blather in cliches and (along with their enemies) repeat themselves way too often.

Past the national park, the areas in which the story unfolds — warehouses, a nightclub, a whole lot of streets and alleys — feel like a who’s who of urban warfare standards as well.

As for how it plays… how does “passable” sound? “Cartel” has a good assortment of guns and its controls and aiming are perfectly sufficient. The artificial intelligence of your allies and enemies leaves much to be desired, but neither is so unfortunate as to break the game.

Rather, like everything else, they’re competently ordinary. And while that faint praise is nothing new for the series when it comes to gameplay nuts and bolts, it’s harder to defend when it’s surrounded by the same old guns, enemies and environments instead of an Old West setting that’s considerably more unique in this medium. You might enjoy “Cartel” while you play it, but it also might be the most forgettable game you enjoy all year.

The one area where “Cartel” flashes some ingenuity is via a handful of optional assignments and findable items that allow you to build a resume as a dirty cop on the take. Getting your hands dirty nets you rewards, but only if you can successfully do so when your partners aren’t looking.

Thanks to the aforementioned A.I. deficiencies, going rogue is moderately fun but not very challenging when playing alone. But trying to pull some valuable wool over your friends’ eyes while they try to do the same to you adds a fun layer of two-way paranoia to “Cartel’s” co-op mode. The rewards and consequences for success and failure aren’t powerful enough to make the feature a total game-changer, but if you elect to play “Cartel,” asking a couple friends to play along will go a long way.

“Cartel’s” competitive multiplayer content (12 players) brings the game back to earth. The two modes —  gangs-versus-cops team deathmatch and a modified team deathmatch with rotating objectives — fit the new setting, and everything that was competent in the campaign remains competent here. But if you’re already invested in another online first-person shooter, nothing “Cartel” does is fresh or fleshed out enough to shake your loyalties.


Trucks and Skulls NITRO
For: iPhone/iPod Touch, iPad (separate versions)
From: Appy Entertainment, Inc
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1 for iPhone/iPod Touch, $2 for iPad

If you like the concept behind “Angry Birds” but wish it was less chirpy and a whole lot more metal, your wish could not be more granted. “Trucks and Skulls NITRO” takes the same general idea (executed with comparable competence) but replaces the birds with trucks and rockets while swapping out the pigs in favor of skulls and demons. The audiovisual presentation makes similar trade-offs, though not at the expense of a colorful presentation and a sense of humor. But while “Skulls” initially feels like a transparent knockoff of the hottest game around, it goes its own way just enough to freshen things up. There’s a greater emphasis on full-scale destruction, along with some awesome contraptions that assist in the wreckage from multiple angles. A few of the “birds” perform tricks that no angry bird is capable of, and a more flexible scoring system makes it possible to achieve four-gear scores (the “Skulls” answer to “Birds'” three stars) by completely destroying a level instead of defeating the skulls using the fewest amount of moves. “Skulls” stays fresh over more than 200 levels by introducing new gadgets and obstacles at a steady pace, and Game Center support allows you to compare scores and achievements with friends also playing the game.