Games 10/4/11: Rage, Tetris: Axis, Rochard, Mercury Hg

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: id/Bethesda
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $60

John Carmack is to game programming what Steve Jobs is to consumer electronics, so when a new game releases under his watch and brings with it a new game engine over which he also presided, it’s a bellwether moment for the future of game design and technology.

And if you don’t care about any of that, “Rage” is a pretty good time as well.

“Rage” will draw superficial comparisons to “Fallout” insofar that it’s a first-person, open-world shooter set primarily in a post-apocalyptic wasteland teeming with mutants, oppressive authority figures and some colorful settlers bent on fighting both groups back.

But where “Fallout” functioned as a role-playing game whose storytelling and scope compensated for shoddy shooting mechanics, “Rage” is a pure action game that borrows from but doesn’t lean on the wasteland motif. Ammo is copious, your inventory bottomless, and while you will gather materials for purposes of engineering some nice special items and weapons (drivable RC car bombs, for instance), scavenging never feels as central to the experience as it did in “Fallout.”

More to the point, though — and thanks to that shiny new engine — the action in “Rage” is polished in all the ways “Fallout’s” wasn’t. Beyond the occasional lengthy load screen, “Rage” feels supremely polished, looking great (artistically as well as technically, thanks to some inspired post-apocalyptic town designs) and purring at 60 frames per second without hiccup and regardless of how big the environment is or how many enemies are crowding it. Controls are similarly dexterous — a good thing, because while authority figures display some intelligence in their shootouts with you, the mutants have zero qualms about rushing you at top speed. “Rage’s” weapons and movement always feel crisp, and death never comes because the game’s technical limitations fail you.

That goes as well for the driving controls, which comprise a surprisingly large portion of the game. “Rage’s” open wasteland is significantly more perilous than its smaller environments, and while you’re welcome to traverse on foot whenever you wish, it’s much safer to grab a buggy, outfit it with missiles and take your chances with that. “Rage’s” vehicles are built to leap large gaps and withstand a beating on the way down, which lends itself well to some exhilarating chases and shootouts against teams of enemy vehicles across rocky terrain. All that’s polished about the shooting applies similarly to the driving: It’s fast, smooth and extremely responsive even when physics make you pay for driving too recklessly.

“Rage’s” driving controls are so good, in fact, they comprise the entirety of the game’s simple but enjoyably mindless competitive multiplayer (four players, online only), which plays like a cross between “Twisted Metal” and wasteland “Mario Kart.” The omission of any kind of competitive shooting component is bound to disappoint, but in its place is a suite of co-op missions (two players, online or splitscreen) that allow you to live out the tales of other characters you meet in the single-player campaign. Given how engaging “Rage’s” characters often are, that’s a worthy trade-off.

Either way, the campaign, at 15 to 30-plus hours long, is “Rage’s” centerpiece. Structurally, it’s flat, with pedestrian objectives and missions that introduce a constant need to backtrack between your current town and the wasteland. Taking on multiple side missions at any given time is highly recommended, as it allows you to complete multiple objectives before doubling back. But even in this instance, it’s pretty clear “Rage’s” story would get pretty old pretty fast if it didn’t have such a terrific game engine to keep it going.


Tetris: Axis
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $30

It’s pretty hard to screw up “Tetris” at this point, and no one has a better track record with the brand than Nintendo.

Sure enough, if all you desire is some traditional “Tetris,” you’ll find it in “Tetris: Axis” — same shapes, scoring system, objective and all.

And if you want a dozen-plus other variations of “Tetris,” ranging from tweaks on the original formula to bizarre experiments that go off the deep end, good news: You’ll find those here as well.

For its part, and via a really clumsy menu interface, “Axis” positions two modes — traditional Marathon and Fever — as its main pillars. Marathon needs no introduction, but Fever feels like the “Tetris” equivalent to what “Pac-Man Championship Edition” was to “Pac-Man.” There’s a time limit, and you’re mostly playing traditional “Tetris.” But configurable power-ups change the way the board behaves when you clear them as part of a line, and you’ll want to clear lines of a single color if you want to activate color mode and score some serious points.

Those factors, combined with the ticking clock, make Fever a vastly different game despite its resemblance to traditional “Tetris.” The short length of a typical game also makes it entirely too easy to try one more time for a higher score. That’s in stark contrast to Marathon mode, which can go on for more than an hour if you’re good, and if one alternative mode had to stand out above the rest, Nintendo picked exactly the right one.

(Incidentally, though “Axis” supports eight-player online competitive play, only a few modes — Fever among them — receive online leaderboard support, and you have to upload your score manually. Better than nothing, but hardly ideal.)

Like most modern “Tetris” games, “Axis” also supports battle play against the computer or friends (eight players, locally or online). Tweaked modes like Survival (smaller grid that’s filling from the bottom as well as top), Master (pieces fall at top speed right from the start) and Sprint (fill 40 lines as quickly as possible) also feature traditional “Tetris” play with small twists.

And then there’s the stuff that’s just weird. Stage Racer Plus stars you as a single piece and tasks you with falling through as much of an obstacle course as you can without getting caught. Fit, meanwhile, shifts to a top-down perspective and tasks you with filling square grids, Tanagrams style, before time expires. In Jigsaw, you’re dropping shapes in order to complete a jigsaw puzzle or match an arrangement on the second screen, while Shadow Wide asks you to assemble objects by quickly filling in their shadows with pieces and doing so with minimal spillage outside the shadow boundaries.

But “Axis” really lets the crazy flag fly when incorporating the 3DS’ augmented reality capabilities, which allow the system to project a “Tetris” grid on any flat surface in your real world. AR Marathon plays like traditional “Tetris,” except with a much smaller grid and a special block that, when part of a cleared line, clears the rest of the grid as well. The (literal) twist is that whenever this happens, the grid rotates its axis, which means you need to move the system’s camera in kind if you want to view the grid from the front.

The ingenuous AR Climber, meanwhile, tasks you with cobbling falling pieces into a continuous platform that allows a little running man to scale an endless circling staircase up a tower. As he circles the AR tower, so must you, so don’t even think of sitting down while playing this if you want to do well. Until someone dreams up a Kinect “Tetris” game, this is the best (if dizziest) “Tetris”-induced workout you’ll ever have.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Sony Online Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (suggestive themes, mild language, fantasy violence)
Price: $10

Sidescrolling puzzle-platformers have flooded the downloadable market over the last few years, but there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing when the quality bar is this high. “Rochard” gets its name from lead character John Rochard, a salt-of-the-universe astro-miner miner who turns superman when his crew comes under attack by space bandits. The game eventually outfits you with traditional firepower and explosives, but for a good while, your only means of defense are a device that changes gravity on the fly and a tractor beam that can push, pull and throw objects. “Rochard” presents combat applications for both, but the real treat comes from the clever ways you must use the beam and gravity (and, eventually, other gadgets) to safely traverse from room to room. Reliable controls, believable physics, sensible puzzle design and generous checkpoints make for a game that’s universally accessible. But “Rochard” isn’t afraid to make you work, filling levels with enemies and puzzles that require timing and controller finesse as well as brainpower to overcome. (That goes triple when, as occasionally happens, the gravity reverses and you must play upside down.) “Rochard’s” audiovisual presentation is terrific, with a funny voice cast and a great look that will remind many of “Team Fortress 2.” The lengthy adventure easily commands the $10 asking price, and if you’re up for it, the harder puzzles standing in the way of bonus collectables — along with a special trophy for speed runners — make it worth replaying once and possibly twice.


Mercury Hg
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $5

To get a quick picture of “Mercury Hg,” imagine the classic Labyrinth board game in which you rotate the game board to move a ball around and (ideally) keep it from peril while guiding it to the exit. Now replace the ball with a temperamental glob of mercury that’s prone to wobbling, shape-shifting, spilling and splitting into multiple smaller globs you must manage simultaneously. Then replace the square board with bizarrely-shaped boards teeming with numerous useful and dangerous gadgets that alter the glob or place it in peril, and set that board to bounce to the beat of the game’s music or your own custom soundtrack. At long last, you have “Mercury Hg,” a reboot of the awesome PSP and Wii puzzle series that feels right at home on PSN and Xbox Live. “Hg” receives a predictable graphical bump with the move to HD, but it’s the other amenities — a better analog stick (or, if you prefer, adjustable SIXAXIS support on the PS3), custom soundtrack support and two sets of online leaderboards (clear time and total score) per level — that benefit it most. At 60 deep, “Hg” doesn’t have as many levels as the last retail “Mercury” game, which had 160. But at $5, it also doesn’t cost nearly as much, and the leaderboard support — along with how easy “Hg” makes it to replay a level in hopes of shaving just a few seconds off that last clear time — means these 60 levels go a longer way than those 160 ever did.