Games 9/27/11: Kirby Mass Attack, The ICO and Shadow of the Colossus Collection, Burnout Crash!, Red Bull X-Fighters

Kirby Mass Attack
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $30

“Kirby Canvas Curse” was such a door-busting revelation for touchscreen gaming that for some, it remains — six years and many great games later — the class of the Nintendo DS library.

To say it’s nice to finally have a spiritual successor to that game is what we in the business like to refer to as an understatement.

First things first: “Kirby Mass Attack” doesn’t recycle “Curse,” which tasked players with indirectly controlling Kirby by drawing freeform platforms, walls, ramps, loops and any other scribble that could safely escort him from A to Z. There is some of that, but it’s more literal, with as many as 10 Kirbies following any path you draw regardless of that path’s physics (so long as the path doesn’t send them straight into walls or other obstacles).

The rub, of course, is that part where you’re controlling as many as 10 Kirbies at one time.

As a predictably silly story explains, Kirby has been split into multiple smaller and less capable versions of himself. When “Attack” begins, you assume control of a single downsized Kirby, who recruits up to nine twins to his party by collecting fruit and other power-ups scattered around what otherwise are your typical 2D platformer stages. (Think “Super Mario Bros.” or Kirby’s more traditional adventures.)

As one becomes two and eventually 10, “Attack” turns into a surprisingly coherent mash-up between platformer, “Canvas Curse” variant and real-time strategy game. When the Kirbies encounters enemies, you can tap on the enemy to instruct all Kirbies to march forth and attack. If you need to multitask, you can tap and drag individual Kirbies to fling them at enemies and anything else that requires their attention at the same time.

In the wrong hands, the idea would stale quickly. But that was true as well of “Curse,” which started small but grew more and more elaborate by parlaying its simple concepts into a ridiculous collection of clever implementations and scenarios.

“Attack” isn’t spotless: Some levels simply ask you to stock up on Kirbies and mindlessly fling them at one enemy or object after another. But far more than not, it flashes that same level of imagination and willingness to try anything and everything that’s possible with the quirky mash-up it’s created. “Attack” sends the Kirbies on a satisfyingly lengthy adventure, and even with the occasional dud level in play, the novelty never outstays its welcome.

“Attack” borrows another inspired page from “Curse’s” playbook by giving dedicated players a ton of incentive to go back play it again. Every level hides coins in secret areas well outside the default path from entrance to exit, and the truly obsessive can attempt to nab each level’s bronze (don’t let any Kirbies die), silver (don’t let any get knocked out) and gold (no damage whatsoever) stars.

The stars are good for bragging rights, but the coins unlock a trove of bonus games, including a “Kirby”-themed Whack-a-Mole variant, a pinball game and a 2D space shooter.

As you’d have to expect, these aren’t full-sized  games. But they aren’t exactly diminutive, either: The pinball game has multiple tables, the space shooter multiple boss fights, and even the most simplistic games have high score tables and multiple levels of play. If Nintendo relented and started making mobile games, some of these could easily justify a buck spent at the App Store. For the price of free and as reward for a job well done playing one of the DS’ best games, they’re a steal and then some.


The ICO and Shadow of the Colossus Collection
For: Playstation 3
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (Blood, Violence)
Price: $40

With respect to the excellent high-definition remaster collections that preceded it over the last year or so, “The ICO and Shadow of the Colossus Collection” is and probably will remain this movement’s high-water mark. Amongst the thousands of games that have appeared since “ICO” and “Shadow of the Colossus” first appeared, none has done what they do quite like how they do it. If you’ve wanted to play something like them in HD, only the genuine articles can help get it done.

To this day, “ICO” remains one of a very precious few games that found a way to make escort missions — those traditionally dreadful sections where you have to drag some defenseless person around and fail the mission if the dead weight wanders off and dies — fun.

In fact, “ICO” builds an entire game around the idea — an impressive achievement by itself, but exponentially so considering the person in your care is even more fragile than your average escort mission partner.

It works, and well, because “ICO” is significantly more invested in elaborate environmental puzzle design than combat. Keeping your companion safe occasionally means fighting off the monsters who try to take her away, but mostly it means searching a large area for a path you can cross and a way to help your less capable companion do the same and meet you on the other side. The scale and design of the areas, coupled with a soft visual style and some strikingly sparse audio design, lend a unique exterior to the unique interior, and the combination of those forces is an adventure that truly feels adventurous.

Though the unique graphical style allowed “ICO” to age more gracefully than most PS2 games did, the high-definition bump — along with widescreen support, an optional stereoscopic 3D presentation and the addition of trophies and other PS3 amenities — is noticeable and welcome.

In the case of “Colossus,” though, the remastering is an absolute blessing.

“Colossus” migrates “ICO’s” visual and aural style to a vastly different world — one crawling with colossi who stand many screens tall and act on their own whims while players climb and traipse around them like living levels. Every colossus has its own mannerisms, makeup and weaknesses that allow your human-sized character to overcome it. The adventure amounts to little more than a game-long boss gauntlet, but the creative colossi designs made for a gauntlet that was challenging, visually awesome, tonally diverse and unlike anything that ever preceded it.

But that ambition carried a price, and the fee materialized as one seriously troubled framerate. The choppiness that plagued “Colossus” on the PS2 was acceptable only because no other game in existence had ever done this, but it was bothersome enough that even being one of a kind wasn’t enough to offset the framerate headaches that plagued many who tried it.

With this revamp, those headaches are gone. “Colossus” gets the same boost and benefits as “ICO,” but that steady, smooth framerate is by far the best present under this entire collection’s tree.


Burnout Crash!
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Criterion/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)
Price: $10

For all “Burnout” has done for arcade racing, the Crash mode — a minigame in which you engineer the most epically expensive car-crash chain reaction you possibly can — remains its arguable hallmark. “Burnout Crash!” re-imagines the concept by replacing fast 3D action with a slower, top-down 2D style that more closely resembles a puzzle game than a high-octane driving game. Expensive wrecks remain the ultimate goal, but “Crash” adds a few additional objectives to each level, and a recharging Aftertouch system — which allows you to reignite your car and prolong a wreck — means these crashes are more methodically drawn out than the blistering collisions in a traditional “Burnout” game. Disappointed? If you come into “Crash” expecting speed and thrills, you likely will be. But taken purely as a puzzle game that merely borrows from rather than mimics the brand, “Crash” has plenty to like. There’s considerably more strategy than initially meets the eye when it comes to landing the skill shots and score combos necessary to master each intersection’s objectives, and while “Crash” is lenient about letting players advance through its levels, fulfilling every objective is a tall endeavor that engenders plenty of replays. The replay value is especially high for those who have friends also playing the game. “Crash’s” offline-only multiplayer allows only one person at a time to play, but its integration of EA’s excellent Autolog social networking platform makes it fun and easy to compare intersection damage reports and challenge your online friends to wreak pricier havoc than you.


Red Bull X-Fighters
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC, Playstation 3/PSP (via PSN Minis)
From: Xendex/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild language, mild violence)
Price: $10

It’s hard to describe “Red Bull X-Fighters” without blowing a kiss over to “Trials HD,” because much of what “RBXF” does was done two years ago in “Trials.” It’s a motorbike game, the events are a mix of stunt challenges and time trials, and even the design and semi-diagonal camera perspective are more than a little familiar. Fortunately, while “RBXF” isn’t fresh, it at least copies the idea competently. The bike physics are believable without being as unforgiving as they were in “Trials,” and the controls are a textbook case of easy to learn and tough to master. Basic riding and trick execution is elementary, but popping subtle wheelies for speed boosts and expertly timing an advanced trick that requires some seriously awkward simultaneous button presses (RT+RB+LT+Y+B) is anything but simple. “RBXF’s” bigger problem is content: There’s no multiplayer, nor is leaderboard integration anywhere near as polished as it was in “Trials.” There are fewer events and less variety to them as well. Trying to achieve gold trophy scores in every event is a beastly challenge that will keep the right kind of player busy for a good while, but those happy to just settle for bronze and go home can feasibly see all of “RBXF’s” tracks and events in a few hours’ time.

DVD 9/27/11: Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Ledge, Going Postal, The Stool Pigeon, How to Make it in America S1

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (PG-13, 2011, Paramount)
The first “Transformers” movie was a mess, the second an abomination. So to say “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is a cut above its predecessors isn’t really saying anything at all. “Moon” isn’t the triumph “Transformers” fans have been waiting for, and once Jerry Wang (Ken Jeong) crashes into the picture like a deranged Roger Rabbit impersonator, it’s painfully clear we’re in for another round of treacherous human characters saying ear-murderingly awful things. Fortunately, “Moon” precedes this waking nightmare with some backstory that amusingly ties together the Moon landing and the War for Cybertron. And while that ultimately goes nowhere — as attempts at storytelling tend to do in this series — it engenders some hope that “Moon” can cover its blemishes with a coat of shamelessly epic scope. Eventually, after a long first hour and some of people blathering in Washington, that’s what we get when everyone shuts up and takes the fight to downtown Chicago. “Moon’s” second half is a loud, messy culmination of 2 1/2 loud and messy movies, but it’s a visually awesome mess that lays absolute waste to its setting. It’s still a long climb up a flat storytelling hill, but it’s also a badly overdue opportunity to let these robots do battle on a scale that should have been present from the beginning. It isn’t poetry, or anything close to it, but in light of all we endured to get to this point, it’ll do. No extras.

The Ledge (R, 2011, IFC Films)
At the outset, the appropriately-named “The Ledge” is a moment in time about a man set to jump off a ledge (Charlie Hunnam as Gavin) and a self-professed “decent” detective (Terrence Howard as Hollis) tasked with talking him down. Naturally, it isn’t quite that simple, what with Hollis receiving life-shattering news an hour prior and Gavin preparing to jump because he has to rather than wants to. “The Ledge” teases us with those revelations very early in its run, and it keeps the carrot dangling thereafter by flashing back and very delicately unfurling the separate messes that brought Hollis and Gavin together on what should have been just another morning. It leaves some things to be desired, most particularly with the way it so furiously establishes Hollis in a terrific opening scene but then drops the brunt of the storytelling into Gavin’s lap. That’s probably fair, because there are more stops between where Gavin was and where he’s ended up, but Howard makes such valuable use of his time — especially when the movie is in the present moment — that it’s hard not to want more. Fortunately, we aren’t left hurting for drama. It takes a special kind of fallout to get to a place in life where killing yourself against your will is the better choice, and “The Ledge” uses the best tools for the job — character development, classically-crafted suspense, sensible but effective surprises and people following their hearts’ orders even when their heads know better — brings us from there to here with few dull moments in between. Patrick Wilson and Liv Tyler also star.
Extra: Interviews.

Going Postal (NR, 2010, Acorn Media)
Conning the people of Ankh-Morpork is a crime punishable by death — and that’s bad news for Moist Von Lipwig (Richard Coyle), who has been outed as one seriously accomplished conman. Fortunately, the merciful powers that be have spared Moist’s life on the condition he inherits and rehabilitates the city’s dilapidated post office. If you’re wondering how that’s a fair trade, consider this: There are thousands upon thousands (and years upons years’ worth) of undelivered letters to mail. Also? Ankh-Morpork is crazytown — a bustling city in which golems and demons make their acquaintance and a maniacal businessman (David Suchet as Reacher Gilt) openly and freely commits crimes far worse than small-time cons to put upstarts like Moist out of business and good health. If “Going Postal” sounds slightly nuts, here’s the good news: It is, and cheerfully so. Ankh-Morpork is constantly alive, and even the slowest, most expository scene does its job with at least a little flair. Moist himself is a double threat as both the star and the foil — a good-hearted scumbag whose conniving ways and delightful disposition make him the perfect answer for his surroundings and newfound enemies. “Postal” does its share of telegraphing — you can spot the love interest angle almost before the love interest even appears — but it has such a charmingly fresh good time that it doesn’t much matter.
Extras: Introduction by Terry Pratchett (who wrote the original “Postal” novel), director commentary, deleted scenes, cast/crew/fan interviews, bloopers, storyboard/prop/concept art galleries.

The Stool Pigeon (NR, 2010, Well Go USA)
Between his broken marriage and a string of confidential informants who have paid dearly under his watch, detective Don Lee (Nick Cheung) cannot stomach much more. Sadly for him, he needs another informant whether he wants one or not. Ghost Jr. (Nicholas Tse), meanwhile, is fresh out of prison and considerably uninterested in getting mixed up with more cops and crooks. But he also wants to rescue his sister and pay his father’s $1 million debt to the men holding her, so he needs the payday even if he doesn’t want it. Along with a couple other characters in similar predicaments, “The Stool Pigeon” is practically a convention for people who need precisely the last thing they want simply to get back to zero again. “Pigeon” isn’t hurting for action, be it a terrific Christmastime car chase or some brutal consequences from the inevitable moment when messy arrangements like these start veering off the road. But it’s the subtler side of this mess that might represent its best work. “Pigeon’s” character development plays a little too hard for sympathy and baggage acknowledgment, but a step too far is better than settling for the same old story about the same old cops and informants. In Cantonese with English subtitles, but an English dub is available as an option.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

How to Make it in America: The Complete First Season (NR, 2010, HBO)
If you’ve ever gone to a party where nobody knows anybody and everybody’s wrapped up in promoting themselves instead of getting to know each other, you now can attend another one any time you want with this home game version of the very same thing. The grandiosely-named “How to Make it in America” is a half-comedic, half-dramatic story of a handful of friends, acquaintances and exes trying to get by in New York City. Sounds like the blueprint for a timely, relatable, recession-era show — and maybe it would be, were it not for the fact that practically everyone on the show is either working on a hustle or has already made it. “America” is embroiled in a fantastically vapid crossfire of art, fashion, energy drinks and hedge funds, which themselves are scattered amongst an array of nightclubs, galleries and other aquariums full of nothing but impossibly pretty people. The show comes courtesy of some of the “Entourage” braintrust, which may not surprise you given its vapidity. But what “Entourage” often lacked in depth, it redeemed with a dryly funny look at Hollywood that intentionally and often brilliantly flirted with parody. “America” plays with a much straighter face, but backs that up with substantially bankrupt characters who are as memorable as all the people you didn’t meet at that party. Later episodes dig slightly deeper, which may bode well for season two, but it’s still a dishearteningly shallow pool.
Contents: 8 episodes (commentary on all), plus deleted scenes, interviews and two features about skateboarders in New York City.

DVD 9/20/11: Bridesmaids, My Run, Make Believe, Happy Endings S1, 51, HitRECord Recollection Vol. 1, Grey’s Anatomy S7, Private Practice S4, Castle S3, Hawaii Five-O S1/S11

Bridesmaids (R/NR, 2011, Universal)
By all the usual metrics of a stereotypical thirtysomething bridesmaid, Annie’s (Kristen Wiig) life is a mess — professionally, personally and most certainly emotionally. Unfortunately, her only comfort — the fact that best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is in the same boat — just sailed out the window via a surprise marriage proposal, and her job as Lillian’s maid of honor is about to open a new set of emotional wounds that will make her miss the mess she was in when “Bridesmaids” began. You might be able to relate, and not necessarily in the way the movie intended. “Bridesmaids” gets off to a terrifically funny start, and it does so simply on the strength of funny characters trading sharply funny lines. That never completely stops happening, but when the plot thickens in all the obligatory ways (love interests, bridesmaid rivalries, multiple stages of rock bottom followed by the inevitable rally) you expect it to thicken, the multitasking spreads the humor a little thin. A distracted “Bridesmaids” is still funnier than most big-studio comedies to release this year, but it’s hard not to wonder what this would have looked like if it’d taken a small-studio cue and ignored those plot obligations in favor of something a little less conventional. Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Jon Hamm and Chris O’Dowd, among others, also star.
Extras: Unrated version, cast/crew commentary, deleted/extended/alternate scenes, outtakes, bloopers, Cholodecki’s commercial.

My Run (NR, 2009, Virgil Films)
When Terry Hitchcock lost his wife to breast cancer and subsequently lost his job days later, the lifeless, depressed, couch-bound aftermath that followed was completely understandable. Or rather, it would have been if Terry didn’t have three young children whose care now fell completely into his hands. What followed over the next 12 years was a harsh but empowering plunge into single fatherhood, and the experience re-energized Terry so much that it mushroomed into a plan to run across America as a means for raising awareness about the plight of voiceless single dads. Great idea — if Terry wasn’t well north of 50 and completely physically unprepared to run a few miles, much less the equivalent of 75 marathons in as many days. (This is, in case it isn’t apparent yet, a true story.) Along the spectrum of stylish documentaries, “My Run” is about as flashy as a workplace orientation video. But when your story centers around a runner unfit to run and a band of grown children whose devotion alone can’t completely prepare them to handle a media campaign for his run, frills and flair aren’t necessary. “Run” doesn’t shy away from the journey’s setbacks and conflicts, and some rocky footage of the journey completely strips away whatever mystique may have accompanied Terry’s journey when viewed from afar. But it’s those wart that ultimately make the story special. Terry and his family persevered in spite of themselves as much as any other factor, and if they can defy the odds to do something this impossibly impressive, maybe the rest of us can as well. Extras content not available at press time.

Make Believe: The Battle to Become the World’s Best Teen Magician (NR, 2011, Firefly/Level 22)
The six teenagers profiled in “Make Believe” care deeply about the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, which represents a chance to meet master magician Lance Burton and fulfill a dream of being crowned the world’s best teen magician. Fortunately, thanks to “Believe’s” construction, you need not share the dream to fully appreciate all that goes into making it come true. Per genre custom, “Believe” introduces us to the hopefuls in their respective elements — suburban Chicago, Japan and South Africa among them, to paint a picture of how far this event stretches — and comes to a head when everyone puts up or shuts up on stage in Vegas. But while the anticipation of who wins is the obvious intended driving force, and while “Believe” does a fine job of carrying that out, it’s the stuff in between — the obsessive attention to detail and technique, the sacrifice of “normal” dreams in favor of something bigger, the pursuit of a trick that no one has ever seen before, much less performed — that emerges as the real treat to watch. “Believe” adheres to a format, but it pays special attention to that format’s most important rule by lovingly conveying what drives these magicians to practice, innovate, lose sleep and occasionally fall on their face in front of strangers and loved ones. If you can relate to that pursuit, you need not know a thing about magic to relate to “Believe.”
Extras: 10 magic tutorials (organized by difficulty), magician profiles, L.A. Film Fest Q&A, “What is Magic?” feature starring Burton and other master magicians, a comedy act with magician Kyle Eschen.

Happy Endings: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, Sony Pictures)
If “How I Met Your Mother” is the amusing story of its main character’s eventual happy ending, the ironically-named “Happy Endings” is its bitter evil twin. “Endings” begins with one character (Elisha Cuthbert as Alex) leaving another (Zachary Knighton as Dave) at the altar, and though it settles in as a fairly light comedy about six friends approaching their thirties in a big city, that awkward introduction at least gives it a push down a different path. One season down, “Endings” isn’t quite as entertaining as “Mother” simply because it lacks the incalculable power of the Neil Patrick Harris/Barney Stinson effect. But it plays in the same ballpark and pretty effortlessly achieves the same vibe — very funny at its very best, but almost always fun even when it’s predictable or hokey. And in lieu of the Stinson effect, we at least get Casey Wilson, whose mirthfully desperate portrayal of perennially-single-and-looking Penny is a scene stealer of a whole different sort.
Contents: 13 episodes, plus deleted scenes, outtakes, a not-quite cast interview, a not-quite theme song, two not-quite promotional pieces and a segment that’s half show montage and half club mix.

51 (R, 2011, After Dark/Lions Gate)
At long last, the government has decided to grant select media select access to Area 51’s underbelly. Inside, they find some cool military tech, including invisibility shields and intelligence-gathering systems with some scary range and abilities. But the real story is Patient Zero, an alien who can adopt the physical signature of anyone he touches and who, on this day (of course!), decides to stop being a model patient of 25 years and use his gift to break free and liberate his fellow prisoners. With “51” originally being a SyFy production, you likely don’t need that fancy intel-gathering tech to presume that what follows is a mix of shoddily-established human characters forced to contend with a stale brew of stock creatures, stock dialogue, stock production values and stock horror movie plot construction. And that’s kind of too bad, because while “51” never seems destined for anything approaching greatness, it has moments of inspiration with regard to its tech, certain alien tendencies and one character who straddles a potentially interesting line between the humans and aliens. But those moments are brief, and “51” rarely follows up on them — a case of a pedestrian movie that has good ideas it’s dying to share but no concept of how to meaningfully do that.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth Mentioning
— “HitRECord Recollection Vol. 1” (NR, 2011, HitRECord): You aren’t alone if you aren’t familiar with the work springing forth from HitRECord, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s open-collaborative production company. One look at this collection, though, and you’d be hard-pressed to forget the name. The two-disc “HitRECord Recollection Vol. 1” compiles a slice of’s multimedia pursuits with a 26-track, 17-song CD sampler and a DVD containing 36 short films and videos. But it’s the packaging — a 64-page hardcover book that houses the discs inside its front and back covers — that really puts the studio’s mission and thirst for experimentation into perspective. HitRECord welcomes all comers — musicians, filmmakers, illustrators, writers, animators and everyone in between — to meet, create and share in the spirit of artistic collaboration. And while the discs are excellent showcases of what can come from initiatives like these, the book’s illustrations, musings and studio history comprise the glue that sets the project apart. “Recollection” is an exciting curiosity for anyone who appreciates experimental media pursuits, but for those interested in being part of that pursuit, this is a can’t-miss.
— “Grey’s Anatomy: Complete Seventh Season” (NR, 2010, ABC) and “Private Practice: The Complete Fourth Season” (NR, 2010, ABC): Seems like every time we part company with Seattle Grace, it’s on a tragic note, and season six — thanks to a shooting rampage that killed some characters and put others under the surgical knives of yet others — was no different. The fallout from that tragedy opens up season seven, but “Grey’s Anatomy’s” real quandary is its need to manage a cast that, even in the wake of the previous seasons’ casualties, has ballooned well into double digits. It’s starting to show some fatigue, but it’s still hanging in there. And hey, there’s a musical episode! “Anatomy” contents: 22 episodes, plus “Seattle Grace: Message of Hope” Webisodes, deleted scenes, outtakes and two features about the musical episode. “Private Practice” contents: 22 episodes, plus deleted scenes, one behind-the-scenes feature and bloopers. As usual, the two series do a little crossing over, though it isn’t as pronounced this time around.
— “Castle: The Complete Third Season” (NR, 2010, ABC): That weeping sound you hear is the legions of “Firefly” fans forlorn over the fact that Nathan Fillion found success on a show that, on many levels, is the antithesis of everything for which “Firefly” stood. But while “Castle” — starring Fillion as a mystery novelist whose expertise lets him tag along with, assist and annoy an NYPD detective (Stana Katic) as she cracks cases in typical cop show fashion — is formulaic in all the ways these shows are formulaic, it at least doesn’t let its star’s talents go to waste. Richard Castle is a likably childish and self-depreciating sidekick whose loyalty knows no limit, and even when his show’s plot designs go flat, his charisma keeps things engaging. Includes 24 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, a Fillion/crew/mystery-solvers roundtable, two behind-the-scenes features and a music video (that, regrettably, doesn’t feature Richard Castle singing).
— “Hawaii Five-O: The First Season” (NR, 2010, CBS) and “Hawaii Five-O: The Eleventh Season” (NR, 1978, CBS): The new “Hawaii Five-O” is the embodiment of all you fear about remakes of old beloved series. It’s a stock police procedural that stands slightly apart from the pack by setting itself in Hawaii and unapologetically dousing its standard criminal storylines with eye candy, and since we’re doing that, let’s just slap a familiar brand name on it and ship it out the door for an easy rating. Nothing “Five-O” does is any more uninspired than any other standard procedural, but if you have any attachment to the original show’s cast, the wooden dialogue and shoddy character development that subs in this time will almost certainly rankle you. (At least CBS had the good sense to release the original’s 11th season — 21 episodes, no extras — on the same day. “First Season” contents: 24 episodes, plus commentary, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features and bloopers.

Games 9/13/11: Nicktoons MLB, Resistance 3, Rise of Nightmares, Star Fox 64 3D, Bloodrayne: Betrayal

Nicktoons MLB
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii and Nintendo DS
From: High Voltage/2K Play
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $40

If you’ve been wondering what the awesome arcade baseball game “The Bigs” has been up to since 2009, here’s your answer. “Nicktoons MLB” isn’t as feature-complete as “The Bigs” was, but simply by borrowing its engine and keeping it intact, it leapfrogs most kids’ baseball games in terms of presenting a great game of baseball.

It also, by mixing semi-realistic major league players and stadiums with the likes of Spongebob Squarepants and Stimpy, is kind of hilarious without even trying.

Perhaps the best thing about “Nicktoons” is that if you want to play a straight-faced game of baseball, you mostly can. Full rosters aren’t available, but all 30 MLB teams’ starting lineups (and two pitchers each) are available. And while the arcade-style flavor and players’ exaggerated physiques make towering home runs and spectacular catches the headliners, everything you need for manufactured runs and pitchers’ duels is here. The pitching controls allow you to paint corners and toy with hitters’ sweet spots for extra turbo. That turbo — earned through plate discipline as well as pitching — can be applied to baserunning and fielding as well as pitching and hitting, allowing you to beat teams with defense and the hit-and-run as well as the long ball.

Though “Nicktoons” softens the difficulty curve — if you play “The Bigs” on medium difficulty, you’ll want to set this one to hard — it makes no concession with regard to how it plays.

The twist, instead, is the ability for Nickelodeon characters to share the same field and uniforms as the Major Leaguers. “Nicktoons” offers a pickup game-style format where you pick an MLB or fantasy team and take turns (either with the computer or a friend via local multiplayer) picking Nick characters to fill half the roster. A Showdown mode allows similar roster management, only with one team solely comprised of Nick characters taking on an all-MLB squad.

“Nicktoons” provides six Nick-themed fantasy stadiums, but the game is never more amusing than when it presents, with a reasonably straight face, the likes of Invader Zim belting a double off Yankee Stadium’s wall and sliding safely under a Derek Jeter tag. “Nicktoons'” visual presentation of this impossible mixture is a wonderfully seamless compromise between realism and cartoon, and while the game’s commentary is a bit repetitive, it’s hard not to laugh when GIR interrupts Perch Perkins’ play-by-play with some seriously nonsensical color commentary.

(Naturally, while “Nicktoons” includes a nice array of popular and obscure Nick characters, there’s bound to be an omission that bothers you. Your mileage, of course, will vary.)

More conclusively bothersome is the drop in content from “The Bigs” to “Nicktoons.” Though all 30 teams have representation, only six MLB stadiums are available — a puzzling omission considering they’ve all been modeled for “The Bigs.” Offline multiplayer is limited to two players, down from four, and online multiplayer is non-existent. The game’s tournament mode — a ladder-style gauntlet in which you must take down every MLB and fantasy team to be crowned champion — is excellent, but it’s not as deep as the season/story mode hybrid that is “The Bigs'” centerpiece. The amazing Home Run Pinball is reincarnated as a fun but more subdued target challenge, and the skill challenge games are gone.

For its part, 2K Play at least prices “Nicktoons” $20 cheaper, so the feature downgrade stings less than it normally would.

A note about “Nicktoons'” optional Kinect controls: They aren’t very good. Pitch selection and placement is way too difficult, and some lag means competent contact hitting comes down to guesswork as well as timing.


Resistance 3
For: Playstation 3
From: Insomniac/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $60

For all who thought “Resistance 2” was a case of a game losing its nerve and simply fitting in, “Resistance 3” has good news: It agrees.

That carry-two-weapon-at-a-time limit from “R2?” It’s gone. Outside of one story-mandated occurrence, when you find a weapon, it’s yours to keep — to the eventual tune of a 12-weapon cache that’s easy to manage and so much more fun to maneuver than the convenient but boring two-weapon maximum.

If you’re familiar with developer Insomniac — masterminds of “Ratchet and Clank” as well as “Resistance” — you also know weapon design is their forte. “R3’s” magnum isn’t just a pistol: Its bullets also explode when you pull a secondary trigger. The stock rifle can tag enemies and pelt them from around corners with homing bullets, and the already-dangerous Atomizer’s secondary function creates what is, by any other name, a black hole. Every firearm in “R3” has some bonus ingenuity in its standard or alternate fire modes, and you can upgrade each twice — simply by using them — to do even more outlandishly useful things.

That, to understate things, is why it’s nice not to have to choose only two. “R3” takes returning “R2” semi-hero Joseph Capelli from Oklahoma to New York, and the clashes that await veer seamlessly between close-quarters combat and immense shootouts in wide-open battlefields. “R3’s” gun selection runs a similar gamut, and the ability to freely swap between a sniper rifle and a shotgun means the game is similarly free to change scope whenever it pleases. You’ll always have the best weapon for the job.

But it’s another callback — a reliance on finding healthpacks instead of waiting for health to magically recharge after a period of inactivity — that gives these shootouts a real sense of danger.

“R3” isn’t stingy when it comes to distributing healthpacks. But their availability is limited, and when you’re pinned down in poor health and a school of Chimera is advancing on you, you have to find a way to outwit them instead of simply hide out, regenerate your health, shoot indiscriminately and repeat. This direction is so much more fun that it’s a wonder so many shooters went the regenerating health route over these last few years.

Those factors, in concert with the flexible scope and the Chimeran A.I. — slightly smart, mostly bullheaded but dangerous enough that being bullheaded works in their favor — make “R3” an exciting mix of tactical and run-and-gun gameplay that doesn’t sell either approach short. The preceding two games laid the foundation for a big blowout this time around, and this game delivers exactly that.

“R3’s” multiplayer ambitions, meanwhile, have taken a step back. Competitive multiplayer supports 16 players instead of 60, and instead of a separate eight-player co-op mode, you get the option to play the campaign with a second player in tow.

The co-op isn’t recommended due to the way it mitigates the aforementioned danger effect and awkwardly wedges into the storyline, but “R3’s” competitive multiplayer doesn’t suffer from the reduced player count. The gametypes are your standard match types with a tweak or two to accommodate the “Resistance” universe, but the ability to wield one-of-a-kind weapons on one side and Chimeran powers on the other is all the game needs to be a blast.

A note about “R3’s” Playstation Move compatibility: It works without incident. You’ll likely prefer the familiarity of the controller on harder difficulties and during multiplayer, but the fact that it’s debatable speaks volumes about the Move’s ability to accommodate first-person shooter controls.


Rise of Nightmares
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, suggestive themes)
Price: $50

Give “Rise of Nightmares” an A for effort and an A+ for conviction. It marks a stark change of scenery (gruesome, story-driven horror instead of family-friendly minigames) for Kinect, it’s the first Kinect game to give players full range of motion, and it takes both breakthroughs and runs pretty wild with them.

Far more subjective is the grade it deserves for execution. It might impress you, it might bewilder or aggravate you. Or it might make perfect sense, because if there’s a genre where control inhibitions are an arguable asset, horror is it.

Though “Nightmares'” walking controls are predictably odd, the game — which plays out from a first-person perspective — at least makes them simple to understand. Standing still and facing forward keeps you still. Turning your torso left or right turns you onscreen, and putting a foot forward or backward and keeping it there sends you walking in that direction until you bring your foot back.

Simple or not, though, this still is bound to be the most trouble you’ve had walking since your toddler days. The Kinect will occasionally misread a motion and send you backpedaling when you mean to walk forward, and in tight spaces with odd geometry, it’s entirely easy (and dangerous) to bump into B, C and D when making a seemingly simple trek from A to E.

With some acclimation, though, it starts to feel somewhat (though never completely) natural. “Nightmares,” for its part, also assists by allowing you to automatically walk to interactive items in view — weapons, notes, doors and other usable objects — simply by extending a hand and reaching for them. Certain areas allow you to use a gesture to auto-walk, and when you’re close to enemies, raising your arms to fight also reorients you to face whomever is closest to you.

“Nightmares'” combat attains a similar level of clumsy immersion. You fight simply by mock-using whatever weapon you’re holding — swinging a knife, punching with brass knuckles, throwing projectiles and even using a hedge-clipping motion if you… yeah. A kicking motion also makes for a nice knockback attack.

You have a degree of control where your attacks land, and “Nightmares” factors limb damage into your enemies’ ability to fight back. But it’s never completely precise, and you’ll occasionally be reduced to flailing if things get dicey.

More than not, though, “Nightmares'” gesture recognition is on point, and the game takes advantage of its proficiency in some very clever ways. An enemy with an ear-piercing scream will destroy you unless you literally cover your ears. Deadly traps require you to run, duck, balance and dodge. A delicate piece of machinery needs a similarly delicate crank turn to work, and a hulking enemy who can hear but not see you will pummel you dead unless you remain still and completely silent. Put your real-life phone on vibrate, because if your Kinect’s microphone picks up any noise during these bits, your in-game character is toast. (How’s that for immersion?)

Moments like that are legitimately unsettling in “Nightmares,” which drops you into a mansion of “Saw”-like horrors and rarely puts you at ease once the lengthy story kicks into gear. The game establishes its setting and villains quickly, and the combination of clumsy controls and unstoppable enemies sniffing for you makes for an experience that’s extremely unique and very legitimately creepy. It’s every bit as inelegant as you’d expect a free-range Kinect game to be, but if you enjoy gaming’s experimental side and thirst for something different, this is bound to be one of the most unusual releases to surface during this very crowded holiday season.


Star Fox 64 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $40

Some point soon, Nintendo has to reposition the fledgling 3DS as a go-to spot for new Nintendo games instead of revamped versions of games that were new under the Clinton administration.

But while we wait for that to happen, there’s nothing wrong with being impressed by “Star Fox 64 3D,” which quite dramatically freshens up the Nintendo 64 original without abandoning what made it so good in its time.

That’s kind of a big deal, because for reasons only Nintendo knows, there hasn’t been a “Star Fox” game since that wasn’t accompanied by some catch that made it something other than a simple, proper dogfighting game. And if this revamp proves anything to those only interested in a new game with new missions, it’s that the formula still works when the production values stay current.

If you’re the rare person who never played “Star Fox” but has an interest in this new edition, there’s little you need to know. “SF643D” is a third-person space dogfighter, and while it occasionally lets you fly the ship freely in a confined space, most missions take place on rails and keep you moving forward while allowing you to control your X and Y axes.

It shouldn’t sound complicated because it isn’t complicated, but it’s fun due to a high concentration of enemies to shoot and obstacles to dodge at a relatively fast pace. Completing one of “SF643D’s” branching storyline trees isn’t wildly difficult, but it isn’t a cakewalk either, and achieving gold medal scores is a legitimate test of your ability to efficiently neutralize enemies, keep your allies alive and stay out of trouble yourself while also navigating a level’s trickier spots for rings and other pickups.

Treated well, that’s a formula that won’t age. And as remakes go, “SF643D” does its part to make an old game feel young again.

Most obvious is the visual makeover, which is significant. “SF643D” transforms an early N64 game into something that looks right at home on the 3DS. It isn’t just a case of new textures, either: Some sections — boss fights in particular — have received what look like ground-up rebuilds, featuring significant leaps forward in animation and composition as well as obvious things like textures and polygons.

Thanks to the 3DS’ second screen, the makeover extends to the interface, which also takes customary advantage of the touchscreen. When your allies and enemies speak to you, their faces comprise the entire bottom screen instead of a small widow, and they’ve received a night-and-day upgrade over their N64 counterparts. That may sound trivial, but it’s the tip of an iceberg’s worth of interface polishing, and if you’ve developed an attachment to the “Star Fox” universe, seeing these characters come alive this way in a proper game is a treat.

The 3DS-enabled enhancements produce mixed results. The 3D effect is a perfect fit for a game in this genre, and it makes “SF643D’s” visual upgrade pop even more. The best thing about the optional accelerometer aiming controls, though, is that they’re optional.

The most clever implementation comes via the inner camera, which snaps your picture and shares your dismayed reactions with friends who shoot your ship down in “SF643D’s” four-player wireless multiplayer. Unfortunately, you’ll already likely be in the same room as your enemies, because the game lacks online multiplayer. That’s a severe bummer, because while “SF643D’s” multiplayer is pretty bare-bones, it’s still fun, and the ability to play online would have done wonders for making this feel like a truly contemporary remake.


BloodRayne: Betrayal
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: WayForward/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Teen (suggestive themes, mild language, violence, blood and gore)
Price: $15

Some shaky games and awful movies left little doubt that a change of scenery would be good for the half-human, half-vampiric Rayne. Whether it’s also good for you comes down to whether you tolerate punishment or embrace it. “BloodRayne: Betrayal” takes what formerly was a traditional action series and re-imagines it as a lavishly animated 2D sidescroller with cartoony but graphically violent (in a “How did this get a Teen rating” kind of way) look. That animation is elaborate to an arguable fault, particularly when you’re trying to dodge peril and one Rayne’s attack animations creates a slight but critical lag in control sensitivity. Responsiveness is at a premium, too, because “Betrayal” is stiffly difficult in a “Mega Man 9” kind of way and occasionally unreasonably hard when it asks you to make some very precise jumps with jump and dash controls that aren’t so precise themselves. Those who pride themselves on mastering cruelly challenging games will get their money’s worth several times over, thanks to a campaign that’s tough to beat and a scoring/ranking system that’s merciless and demoralizing. (Don’t be surprised if you never grade higher than an F, even if you finish the game.) Mere mortals, however, should be advised: “Betrayal” has no issue with crushing your spirit, be it by design or due to the aforementioned issues, and if you don’t go into it hungry for a beating — not simply tolerant of one, but hungry for it — you’re bound to get chewed up, spit out and left wanting your $15 back.

DVD 9/13: Rescue Me S6, Hesher, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, Thor, Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers, Carrie Fisher: Wishful Drinking, Just Peck, Son of Morning, Star Wars: The Complete Saga, Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary UCE

Rescue Me: The Sixth Season and the Final Season (NR, 2010-11, Sony Pictures)
The beautiful thing about “Rescue Me” — a show set in the wake of Sept. 11, featuring characters who served for the FDNY on that day in a fictional parallel universe, and even featuring (across the show’s entire run) one character who died in the twin towers — is that it never once became an insufferable, opportunistic, beat-you-over-the-head allegory for the real and terrible things that happened that day. Instead, what we get is a show about people — firefighters, the people who love them, and the respect they pay to those lost on that day and every day since. Sept. 11 set the table, and in a rare feat of a television show going according to plan, its 10-year anniversary cleared it. But in between, “Rescue Me” told stories about dysfunctionally lovable people, the brotherhood that unites them, the thrill of the rescue that drives them, and the friends, spouses and children who do stupid things and watch them do stupider things in return. It’s funny, dark, blunt, uncommonly heartfelt, able to cram a middle finger and bear hug into a single sentence, and not above illustrating a storyline through song and dance. If you can put up with a little raunchiness and see through the pretense of the premise, what lies within is a deranged and life-affirming show with few (maybe no) peers. Start from season one if you haven’t dipped in yet, and know that the series ends on the same bright note on which it began.
Contents: 19 episodes, plus deleted scenes, the creators’ last call, a season retrospective, a loving montage called “Balls!” and bloopers.

Hesher (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
Life has really been testing young T.J. (Devin Brochu) lately, and not simply by violently knocking him off his bike a full three times before “Hesher” is 11 minutes old. When we finally get a chance to catch our breath, the picture is much worse: T.J.’s mother is gone, his father (Rainn Wilson) is a broken shadow of his former self, the school bully (Brendan Hill) won’t leave him alone, and one careless mistake has somehow led to a complete maniac named Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) taking residence in the basement. That’s a big mess, and “Hesher” goes big with it, savagely swerving between outrageous dark comedy and absolutely brutal human drama before just smashing the two together and seeing what happens. Occasionally, what happens is a lot of energy searching for a lot of outlets, and the scrambled emotions will strike some as a story without a clear notion of where it’s going. Turns out, the opposite is true: “Hesher” so confidently knows exactly what it is and what it’s about that it simply isn’t afraid to latch onto the most outrageous allegories it can dream up and ride them like a bull through a sea of Pamplonians. The result? An unforgettably satisfying payoff that marries crude and heart-on-sleeve fury like maybe no movie before it ever quite has. Natalie Portman also stars.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes, two behind-the-scenes features, sketch gallery.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (R, 2011, Magnolia)
If you know who Conan O’Brien is, you almost certainly already know how his 2010 went. So we’ll skip the refresher course and get right to the point: If you’ve longed to see what that saga looked like behind the curtain, you should really take a look at this. “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” documents the assemblage and execution of the 32-city tour that filled time during Conan’s television exile, and at the absolute very least, it’s an inspiring look at the art of creating something amazing that, if all had gone according to plan, would never have even existed. But “COCS” isn’t simply a picture of Conan and crew filling time so much as reconciling a sudden and bitter void, and if you expect nothing more than a funny but shallow look behind the scenes, this will surprise you. Yes, it is very funny. But it’s an angrier, edgier kind of funny than Conan’s shows typically allow us to see. And while the tour may be the story, the movie’s surprising appetite for candor weaves one hell of a subplot about just how dually exhausting and intoxicating the whole process — from conception to an aftershow that needs its own aftershow — can be. The light with which “COCS” paints its star is often surprisingly unflattering, but Conan’s willingness to let that light shine simply cements further what most of his fans admire about him in the first place.
Extras: Director/Conan/Andy Richter commentary, deleted scenes, Conan interview, interview outtakes.

Thor (PG-13, 2011, Paramount)
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) isn’t your garden-variety superhero, because most superheroes aren’t literal gods like he is. Consequently, “Thor” isn’t your garden-variety superhero movie. Our acclimation period with our titular hero commences with him already in full world-beater mode, and in place of the same old humble beginnings, we get a humble comeuppance when a foolhardy act results in Thor’s banishment to the mortal realm (or Earth, as we call it) and his body’s downgrade to mortal status. Anyone with a movie IQ of more than six can conclude that this is where “Thor” embarks on a predictable march toward our fallen hero’s redemption, with a stop along the way that puts Earth and Thor’s newfound mortal friends (Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings) in grave peril. But while certain obligations make certain twists entirely predictable, they work in concert with one seriously entertaining fish-out-of-water story to make that a surprisingly trivial issue. “Thor’s” action scenes are still the big draw, but it’s the amusing ways Thor and his new neighbors get to know each other that count as its most fun work. Tom Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins star as Loki and Odin, respectively.
Extras: Short film “Marvel One-Shot: The Consultant,” director commentary, deleted scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features, feature on the upcoming “Avengers” movie (which is where Thor’s story continues).
— More Thor: “Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers” (NR, 2011, Shout Factory): The latest, feature-length entrant in the Marvel Knights motion comics series expounds on the sibling rivalry as seen in the film. Extras include two behind-the-scenes features.

Carrie Fisher: Wishful Drinking (NR, 2010, HBO)
Carrie Fisher’s claim to fame needs no introduction, and thanks to her own candor, neither does a personal and professional downfall that includes divorces, drugs and an unsolicited admission of mental illness. “Wishful Drinking” brings the saga to its almost inevitable next stop — a one-woman stage show, with Fisher riffing on everything from childhood to “Star Wars” to Googling herself to the time she woke up with a dead friend in her bed. As a whole, “Drinking” is far from perfect, occasionally meandering through the realm of self-indulgence before Fisher’s own self-awareness pulls it down to earth. Fisher’s checking also sometimes works against her — in particular, whenever she latches onto something poignant and quickly backs out with a dry remark instead of pushing further to see where it takes her and her audience. At its worst, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what “Drinking” is even supposed to accomplish. Fortunately, it’s usually during these darkest moments where Fisher says something sharply funny enough to chase the doubt away. Whatever “Drinking” should have been, once was and never will be, the one thing it is is consistently funny. That alone doesn’t make it the cathartic knockout it could have been, but it does make it entertaining.
Extras: Deleted scenes, interview with Fisher’s mother.

Just Peck (NR, 2009, Image Entertainment)
Short and scrawny high school sophomore Michael Peck (Keir Gilchrist) isn’t much to look at, and when a class-cutting adventure leaves him face to face with dream girl Emily (Brie Larson), the stammering that trips and falls out of his mouth isn’t much to listen to, either. Normally, this is the point in the movie where Peck devises a wacky scheme to get the girl in the end. But whether it completely means to or not, “Just Peck” goes another, better way. There are lengthy stretches where “Peck” doesn’t quite seem to know where it wants to go, and whether you see it in the faces of half-used supporting characters (Marcia Cross, Adam Arkin, Camryn Manheim) or in the trajectories of storylines that jump off the tracks before jumping back on, you’ll probably notice its tendency to meander at some point. But there’s merit in the messy, clumsy way “Peck” tells its story. Cute, dry and dark humor mingle comfortably but contribute equally to the development of two characters who are much more interesting than appearances first suggest, and the not-so-neat story caps with a not-so-neat ending that’s more satisfying than what teen movies usually spoon-feed us. No extras.

Son of Morning (R, 2011, Entertainment One)
Some impulsive journalism has led to the widespread belief that the sun’s imminent end is upon us, and if you can get the public to swallow that, the image of lowly commercial copywriter Phillip Katz (Joseph Cross) bleeding from one eye in church is more than enough to blindly convince the world he’s humanity’s savior. Problem is, even if Phillip really was a savior and his bleeding eye wasn’t just a side effect related to prescription medication, he likely couldn’t save “Son of Morning” from itself. Even if lampooning people’s desperation in the face of doom is no longer fresh idea, it remains one with lots of room in which to have lots of fun. But “Morning” starts senselessly weird, stays senselessly weird and just rambles full bore with neither a filter nor much idea of what it wants to even do with this premise. A good cast (Danny Glover, Heather Graham, Lorraine Bracco, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Stephen Root) is on board, but all it does is fill the shoes of characters who behave strangely yet amount to nothing more than the same old parody archetypes. Even background style choices — an intrusive soundtrack, to name one — just kind of flail their arms and get in the way. In the end, all the noise adds up to nothing much, and “Morning” basically leaves looking like everything it set out to make fun of when it entered.
Extra: Graham interview.

Worth a mention
— “Star Wars: The Complete Saga” (NR, 1977-2005, Fox): Let the latest round of hand-wringing commence, and let the theories fly that George Lucas tweaks his baby simply because it’s fun to drive its most ardent fans absolutely crazy. “The Complete Saga” brings all six “Star Wars” movies to Blu-ray for the first time, and if you want them in that format, the newest tweaks — Ewoks blinking, Yoda going digital for “The Phantom Menace,” Darth Vader screaming “Noooo” an inexplicable second time — are part of the deal. (Greedo still shoots first, too. Sorry.) All the extras from the preceding trilogy DVD sets return for the Blu-ray, which is available as a single, six-film set or as separate trilogy sets. New pack-in bonuses include the 2007 documentary “Star Warriors,” a 30th anniversary “Empire Strikes Back” retrospective, the 90-minute “Star Wars Spoofs” and six lengthy making-of features made between 1977 and 2007.
— “Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition” (PG-R, Warner Bros.): Less controversial but every bit as essential is this set, which applies a new, 1080p-ready digital transfer to the arguable (and argued) greatest movie ever made. Along with the film’s first Blu-ray incarnation, this set includes the Oscar-winning documentary “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” and the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning making-of dramatization “RKO 281,” both of which are must-sees if you’re a fan of the movie that birthed them. Additional extras include commentary tracks by Roger Ebert and director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich, interviews, a 48-page hardcover companion book, newsreel footage of the premiere, a photo gallery and replicas of the original movie program, lobby cards and various studio documents.

DVD 9/6/11: Everything Must Go, Hanna, Rebirth, X-Men: First Class, Babar: The Classic Series, Community S2, The Office S7, Parks and Recreation S3, Baseball's Greatest Games

Everything Must Go (R, 2010, Lions Gate)
If you get unceremoniously dumped as vice president of a company you helped grow, that’s a bad day. If your wife leaves you while you’re in the middle of getting dumped by your employer, that’s a worse day. And if you come home from a job you no longer have in a company car that soon won’t be yours and find all your things on the front lawn of a house that, along with your bank accounts, has had its locks changed? That’s Nick Halsey’s (Will Ferrell) day. Fortunately for Nick, there’s always tomorrow. If you see “Everything Must Go” and find yourself frustrated with it, you likely won’t be alone. In particular, “Go” can’t convincingly decide whether it wants to use Ferrell’s comedic gifts or not, juxtaposing some very funny scenes of Nick acting irrationally (as a man essentially living on his lawn tends to act) with scenes in which a dead-eyed Nick all but has let his soul slip away. But if you can look at “Go” as a Nick Halsey vehicle instead of a Will Ferrell vehicle, the perspective shift does wonders. “Go’s” title is, in case you didn’t already guess, as figurative as it is literal, and the movie’s myriad emotions — amused, irate, bitter, heartbroken and totally confused — are an entirely proper reflection of an already imperfect guy who has to overcome a monstrous upheaval without warning. Ferrell doesn’t always look comfortable in Nick’s shoes, but he fills them awfully well anyway. Christopher Jordan Wallace, Rebecca Hall and Michael Peña also star.
Extras: Director/Peña commentary, deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.

Hanna (PG-13, 2011, Universal)
It’s finally time for Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), who has spent all of her 16 years in Finland’s outskirts with her father (Eric Bana), to see the world. But when you’re raised in obscurity for purposes of being molded into an unstoppable assassin, “see the world” actually means “traipse completely alone across Europe on a deadly mission.” How do you like that for a setup? Hopefully a ton, because in terms of overarching storyline development, that’s the bulk of what “Hanna” has to give. Fortunately, if you can embrace all it has to offer elsewhere, it might be just enough. Even when “Hanna’s” story keeps circling the same roundabout, the action that takes it around is great fun — both in spite of and due to it revolving around a girl barely old enough to drive and the teams of trained combatants who can’t handle her. Similarly, while the gradual colorization of Hanna’s origins and personality doesn’t inspire similar growth for her mission and her father’s and his enemies’ motives, it makes her a whole lot more interesting than your typical born-and-raised supersoldier. There are similar caveats attached to just about everything else, and style clearly has substance’s number throughout the movie, but the battle is never so lopsided that “Hanna” can’t be a good time anyway. Cate Blanchett also stars.
Extras: Director commentary, alternate ending, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Rebirth (NR, 2011, Oscilloscope)
There’s an understandable but brutally unfair stigma attached to the notion that at some point, life must go on without those we lose too soon. Perhaps nothing short of living through it will demonstrate that agony quite so intimately as does “Rebirth,” which documents nearly 10 years of aftermath for five people who very directly were affected by the Sept. 11 attacks. In terms of style, “Rebirth” keeps it simple, checking in annually on each person and letting each do all the talking on his or her own behalf. Visually, between the subjects’ year-over-year transformations and the time-lapse photography of Ground Zero’s transformation that punctuates each year, it’s more than enough. Candor carries “Rebirth” almost from minute one, so no additional frills need apply. Keeping the stories in the hands of those who tell them also allows the movie to create a legacy it can’t diagram in advance, and the way mourning reluctantly and often painfully morphs into something almost celebratory — of the past, the choice to cherish it, and the eventual need to honor it by making new memories — is magnificently inspiring. Of the many Sept. 11 books, movies, articles and television specials that will doubtlessly propagate in the days and weeks to come, this may be the only one that gives these last 10 years the perspective they’ve mostly been denied.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, feature-length version of the time-lapse footage, behind-the-scenes feature about the time-lapse project.

X-Men: First Class (PG-13, 2011, Fox)
If you’re tired of superhero origins movies, the prospect of an origins story for a comic that arguably already had one (2000’s “X-Men”) — along with a spinoff series that has the word “Origins” right there in the title — likely must drive you crazy. But while “X-Men: First Class” can’t help but go through some of the origins story motions while showing us how the X-Men truly came into being, it at least has the good sense to make it a fun ride down old roads. “Class” takes place in the tenuous era in which the Cold War’s promotion to World War III seemed, thanks to supervillain-slash-dictator Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), all but inevitable. To counter, the United States enlists the efforts of friends and future adversaries Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who cobble together a band of scrappy young mutants (Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Edi Gathegi, Nicholas Hoult and more) to stop the threat. And what a plucky bunch they are. It’d be excessive to classify “Class” as anything close to a comedy, but it’s impossible to ignore how much more fun this group has with their gifts than their older selves do in the other, comparatively dreary “X-Men” movies. Things inevitably straighten out due to the movie’s obligations to the endgame and the big finish, but the youthful energy never fully recedes, and it’s enough to make you wonder how much more exciting this genre would be if it embraced its exuberant side a little more and bowed to obligatory grit a little less.
Extra: Eight-part behind-the-scenes feature.

Worth a Mention
— “Babar: The Classic Series: School Days” and “Babar: The Classic Series: Best Friends Forever” (NR, 1989, Entertainment One): The launch one year ago of “Babar and the Adventures of Badou” marked a deserving return to form for Babar the Elephant, whose new animal friends and computer-animated makeover stayed surprisingly true to everything that made the books and cartoons so cherished. With that said, if the new series’ new look is too much to bear, the release of these “Classic Series” episodes, which originally aired on HBO more than 20 years ago and have received an overdue digital restoration here, should ease your mind. Each DVD includes four episodes and one eight-page coloring book.
— “Community: The Complete Second Season” (NR, 2010, Sony Pictures), “The Office: Season Seven” (NR, 2010, NBC Universal) and “Parks and Recreation: Season Three” (NR, 2010, NBC Universal): These are glorious times for fans of sitcoms that are actually funny, and “The Office” gets no small share of the credit for making the water safe for the shows that have rushed in since. Season seven’s big storyline has been spoiled to the point where it’s no longer even a spoiler, so while we wait to see whether Michael Scott’s (Steve Carrell) departure sinks the show or inspires it to rise to the occasion, the seventh season sends him off both beautifully and hilariously. Should “The Office” sink, you can always hitch your wagon to the likes of “Community” and “Parks and Recreation.” Similar to “The Office,” both shows shook off awkward starts before coming into their own by first season’s end, and both have absolutely taken off since. “Office” contents: 24 episodes (some extended), plus commentary, deleted scenes, webisodes, bloopers and an uncut copy (with commentary) of Michael Scott’s magnum opus, “Threat Level Midnight.” “Community” contents: 24 episodes (commentary on all), plus deleted scenes, outtakes, four behind-the-scenes features and a DJ Steve Porter remix of season one. “Recreation” contents: 16 episodes (some extended), plus commentary, deleted scenes and a tribute to Li’l Sebastian.
— “Baseball’s Greatest Games” series (NR, MLB/A&E): If the time has come to concede the 2011 baseball season for your favorite team, it may also be time to wallow in the memories of years’ past. And if that’s the case, MLB’s “Baseball’s Greatest Games” DVD line has a large helping of new entrants, including Game 6 of the 1986 World Series (for depressed Mets fans), Game 6 of the 1993 series (Blue Jays) and Game 7 of the 1991 series (Twins), among others. Lest Red Sox and Yankees fans ever feel left out, Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and Game 4 of the 2004 rematch are also available, and the game in which Derek Jeter joined the 3,000 hit club will be available later in the month. Each DVD (sold separately) includes the uncut broadcast with both TV and radio audio tracks. Most lack additional extras, but the Jeter game includes post-game footage and a milestone roundup.

Games 9/6/11: Driver: San Francisco, God of War: Origins Collection, Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon

Driver: San Francisco
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC, Wii
From: Ubisoft Reflections/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, language, sexual themes, violence)
Price: $60

At long last, the formerly-great “Driver” series can lay claim to being formerly washed up. “Driver: San Francisco” is polished, pretty and loaded with a kitchen sink’s worth of arcade racing mission and mode types. It’s also guided by a storyline that, without breaking series continuity, is completely crazy in an wholly, startlingly beneficial way.

The prologue shows all, but here’s the gist: You, as series mainstay John Tanner, are in a coma. But your comatose state gives you a wild ability to not only observe San Franciscans’ activity from a bird’s-eye view, but “shift” into any driver on the road and assume control over his or her body (and, by extension, vehicle).

“D:SF’s” appetite for polished interfaces makes this shifting mechanic a breeze to use: One button press shifts out of body and atop a living city map, and shifting into another body is as simple as highlighting a vehicle and pressing the same button. The game’s prioritization of fun over everything else means that, outside of special challenges in which you must succeed on driving talent alone, you can shift whenever, however and as often as you please.

Immediately, shifting is fun because it allows you to drive all kinds of vehicles (licensed cars, tow trucks, semis and everything in between) and jump into the minds of numerous trivial and important side characters. (“D:SF’s” storyline, presented somewhat like a weekly police drama, utilizes good character development, great voice acting and surprisingly sharp humor to tame the implausibility monster it creates, and the clever writing trickles down to even the most idle of chatter between the most trivial of characters.)

At some point, though, you’ll unwittingly stumble into something that brings the shift mechanic’s true potential into full light. It might be in the body of a cop forced to take down four street racers alone — a task made much easier if you quickly shift into oncoming traffic to create a roadblock before shifting back to finish the takedown. Perhaps it’ll be during a team race, where you must quick-shift between two cars in the same race in order to place them first and second. You can always use raw driving skill to complete challenges the hard way, but “D:SF’s” scope, interface and total allowance for player ingenuity creates a confluence of racing and real-time strategy that’s too much fun to ignore.

It helps immensely that the game’s other facets also carry their weight. “D:SF” looks terrific, and its vehicles finds a great balance between weighty and arcadey handling controls. More than 100 vehicles are on offer, and with some exceptions, you’re free to complete a myriad of mission types — stunt challenges, arrest/getaway missions, checkpoint/open-ended races, tailing/escort missions and more — with whatever ride you like. Fleeing four police cruisers in a bus is a fool’s errand, but “D:SF” won’t mind if you try. And because just about everything you do (even when failing missions) earns you experience points toward the purchase of new cars and upgrades, you’re never really penalized for trying something ridiculous.

“D:SF” nicely migrates most of its finer points to the online (eight players) and local (two) multiplayer side. Traditional races are available, but other modes — tag and co-op cop/criminal chases, to name two — take advantage of the open-ended map. Unless you opt for a pure race, the shift mechanic is fully in play for all players at once, and the ensuing chaos doesn’t break the game like you might guess it would. Should you unlock every last reward in the solo campaign, a separate experience points and rewards track awaits on the multiplayer side.


God of War: Origins Collection
For: Playstation 3
From: Ready at Dawn/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity)
Price: $40

After Sony rounded the Playstation 2 “God of War” games into a terrific Playstation 3 compilation two years ago, it was all but written that this two-pack, which brings the series’ two Playstation Portable entrants to the bigger screen, would someday follow.

But if you never played those games the first time around, “God of War: Origins Collection” represents more than simply a nice effort on Sony’s part to make the entirety of the franchise available on one system. It also — thanks to the efforts of a developer that wasn’t afraid to leave its mark on a series it didn’t create — allows those who don’t own a PSP to see the series in a slightly but noticeably different light.

Lest we get carried away, neither half of “Origins” — 2008’s “Chains of Olympus” and last year’s “Ghost of Sparta” — marks anything close to a radical departure. Both games star you as the same old Kratos, who, at least initially, uses his same old Blades of Chaos to wreak the same old havoc on a familiar cast of human, inhuman and mythical enemies. Gameplay remains a mix of 80 percent combat and 20 percent platforming and environmental puzzle solving, and if you’ve played any “God of War” game enough to remember the basics, the brief tutorials that open both games will be completely unnecessary.

With that said, though, the distinctions are there, and not simply in the form of new environments, boss enemies and magic spells. The pace at which “Sparta” shifts players between combat and platforming is a series best, and while “God of War III” operated on a scale these games couldn’t possibly match, the platforming controls and level designs in these games are significantly fundamentally superior to “GOW3’s” effort. A weapon introduced near the end of “Olympus” (no spoilers) may be the best thing Kratos had ever wielded, and a new chase mechanic in “Sparta” is — while sorely underutilized — responsible for some of that game’s highlights.

Perhaps most interesting are the bold steps both games take to add some overdue definition to Kratos’ beginnings (“Olympus,” which is a prequel to the original game) and family life (both games but particularly “Sparta,” which takes place between the first two games and introduces us to Kratos’ brother). The console games have painted Kratos into a corner as an unlikable brute with cloudy intentions, but these games do a terrific job of giving us some sorely needed color without feeling completely out of character.

Because the same developer responsible for making these games also handled porting them to the PS3, it isn’t terribly surprising that “Origins'” migration is a smooth one.

Lest you have unrealistic expectations, this isn’t a case of a game’s graphics getting a ground-up overhaul, but instead an attempt to transfer assets designed for a tiny screen to something much bigger. A predictable downgrade in detail in certain respects (characters’ faces in particular) reflects that.

But because most of “Origins'” action takes place from a distance and at a frantic pace, details like these aren’t worth much concern. In action at full speed, both games look like legitimate big-screen games, and the compensation for that loss of detail — a framerate locked in at 60 frames per second and ground-up support for 3D hardware if you have it — more than makes up for the occasional slightly blurry texture. In terms of presentation and control refinement, “Origins” is a first-class translation.


Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Backbone Entertainment/345 Games/Comedy Central
ESRB Rating: Mature (strong language, blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes)
Price: $10

“Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon” gets the rare distinction of being a game that animates better than the cartoon on which it’s based, but if you’re familiar with the low-rent Comedy Central cartoon, you also know that’s a small hurdle to clear. You also know what to expect from the game’s audiovisual department — namely, ugly characters, gallons of blood, bizarre weaponry (desk laps, rubber chicken rockets, propane tank shooters) and several premium cable channels’ worth of blue language flying freely and repeated ad nauseam. Whether you love it, hate it or simply enjoy the bewilderment it engenders, the presentation is the most unique thing about “Apocalypsegeddon,” which otherwise combines a decent sidescroller and a decent twin-stick shooter into something that is neither exemplary nor bad. “Apocalypsegeddon” helps itself by providing three playable characters and outfitting each with upgradable attributes that enhance their abilities without  marginalizing their unique strengths and weaknesses. The game also prioritizes co-op play (online/offline, four players) insofar that it’s the default mode of play throughout the campaign. Turning it off or setting up a friends-only game is easy, but a stiff (and erratically spiking) default difficulty means you’ll probably want to play with someone who can share the load and revive you when you succumb. The loose difficulty progression and mostly non-existent enemy A.I. work in concert with the cheap presentation to form a game that never comes together completely, but if you love the cartoon or can’t get enough twin-stick action, “Apocalypsegeddon” is (faint praise alert) certainly competent.

Games 9/1/11: Jetpack Joyride

Jetpack Joyride
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Halfbrick Studios
iTunes Store Rating: 9+
Price: $1

So-called running games — those games where your character is continually bolting forward with increasing speed and your task is to jump, duck and slide out the way of trouble — have become a little too prevalent on mobile devices over the last few months.

But if you still have room for one more, this probably is the one to get.

“Jetpack Joyride” changes the core formula ever so slightly by strapping a jetpack to the back of Barry Steakfries, who has become to Halfbrick Studios’ games what Mario is to Nintendo’s. Barry’s still dashing forward, but instead of tapping the screen to jump, you’re tapping (jump), holding (ascend) and releasing (descend) to control the jetpack’s altitude and dodge obstacles at every elevation.

On that level alone, “Joyride” is good fun, with responsive controls, obstacle design that takes advantage of the gimmick and the best implementation yet of the humor and visual vibrancy that accompanies Barry’s adventures.

“Joyride” also takes a cue from Barry’s more traditional running game, “Monster Dash,” and includes a handful of vehicles that give Barry a little room for error and give players an extra jolt of variety. The motorcycle makes a return, but the new models — a hopping mech, a squirrelly teleportation device, a gravity suit and a shuttle with the face, shape and squawk of a bird — are creative in both their design and the unique ways they harness the same basic gameplay mechanic.

Ultimately, though, it’s Halfbrick’s dedication to compulsion that transforms “Joyride” from fun curiosity to total time sink.

Coins collected while in flight allow you to purchase power-ups, new jetpack models and new playable characters. A game-wide ranking system awards you for the completion of side missions, which may (fly 750 meters without crashing the teleportation device) or may not (travel 1,750 meters without touching a single coin) coincide with the game’s more traditional goals. Leaderboards and achievements — via OpenFeint and Game Center — provide another layer of stuff to accomplish, and a stat-tracking system will please those who appreciate absolutely useless but strangely fascinating numbers.

But it’s the slot machine, which greets you after your game ends, that provides “Joyride” with its best trimming. Collecting special tokens during a run will unlock spins on the machine, which rewards bonus coins, single-use power-ups, free spins and explosives that give you one last bump for a little more distance (and, if you catch them during the bump, coins and spins).

The holy grail, of course, is the triple hearts spin, which revives Barry and lets you continue your current run like nothing bad ever happened. Getting it is a rare occurrence, but the wait for a third heart after the first two spin that way is sometimes as exciting as compiling a run good enough to make a second chance matter.