The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, comic mischief, fantasy violence)
No matter which door you walked through to get here, “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” likely is the game you want or do not want it to be. If you think the series is staler than moldy croutons, so is this game. If you think it’s picked up too many bad habits that have sent it from the cutting edge to behind the curve, this one validates your position.
Conversely, if you think “Zelda” games do what they do boldly, peerlessly and just plain better than other games do, “Sword” could be the game of your dreams. And if you believe in motion controls like Nintendo does, this is the validation you’ve been waiting five years to play.
It is in the area of combat — a weak spot in every “Zelda” game released in three dimensions — where “Sword” unquestionably wants to and does leave its mark. In contrast to the Wii’s first “Zelda” game, where simply shaking the Wii remote any old way produced one of a handful of proportionally generic sword strikes, “Sword” accurately matches your remote (MotionPlus attachment or Wii Remote Plus required) to the sword. Hold the remote awkwardly over your head and Link does the very same, leaving him vulnerable to attack from enemies who not only take advantage of your openings but also punish you for telegraphing and repeating attacks. Enemies naturally exhibit weaknesses and tells of their own, and it’s on you to exploit them while keeping them guessing and keeping your shield up.
(The shield, mapped to the considerably less capable nunchuck attachment, doesn’t control as flexibly, but it handles basic blocking perfectly fine.)
In typical Nintendo style, “Sword” devises myriad ways to capitalize on its enhanced range of motion, and not merely with regard to swordplay.
Per series custom, “Sword” provides bombs for purposes of environmental manipulation as well as combat, but now you can bowl as well as throw them simply by doing so with the remote. Items you take for granted like the boomerang, meanwhile, are outright replaced by (unspoiled) new gadgets that function similarly but better take advantage of motion controls. That, in turn, feeds into puzzles and dungeons that accommodate motion without sacrificing the scope and intricacies for which “Zelda” dungeons are revered. Better late than never, “Sword” seals Nintendo’s case for motion controls as a way to significantly enhance a traditional game at no cost to tradition.
At the same time, “Sword” is swimming in idiosyncrasies that very, very arguably have overstayed their welcome. This is the most ambitious and moving story the series has ever told, but it’s one that undergoes nearly five hours of exposition, hand-holding and fetch questing before it starts getting interesting, and it’ll be a few dungeons after that before it really gets good. If you don’t like that early going, you won’t love the collect-a-thons and fetch quests that needlessly pad the time between dungeons, either. (Fortunately, the unfortunate lack of a passable interface for tracking optional quests makes it easy to just forget about them and plow forward.)
“Sword’s” orchestral score and watercolor-esque visual style are series high-water marks in both respects, but the continued omission of voice acting — whether you find that charming or archaic — sticks out more awkwardly than ever.
Link’s platforming abilities, meanwhile, are that much clumsier thanks to an awkward dash mechanic that gets more use than it deserves. And that obnoxiously binary brand of “Zelda” stealth, where simply getting spotted means immediately starting a segment over? It’s back in its brief but recurring role.
Stuff like this — and sometimes hours of it — are the price paid for the stuff in between, which finds “Zelda” in as fine a form as it’s ever been in the 3D age. This is the most ambitious game Nintendo has ever made, but it’s a stubborn strain of ambition, and if you come into “Sword” already baring strong feelings — favorable or otherwise — this one likely will cement them.
Saints Row: The Third
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Three chapters into a series that began as a straight-faced “Grand Theft Auto” wannabe, “Saints Row: The Third” commences by almost immediately giving you a reaper drone as your first weapon upgrade and letting you call in (and control) missile airstrikes at will from that moment forward.
And with that — and following an opening sequence in which you lead a bank robbery that somehow culminates in an airborne shootout that includes skydiving into and through the windshield of a crashing airplane — we are off to the races.
Before we get carried away with how out of control this fable gets, it’s worth stopping and emphasizing how solid “SR3’s” underpinnings are. The game’s third-person shooting controls are far more versatile than what “Grand Theft Auto IV” produced, and the driving (and, eventually, biking and flying) controls are what you expect — loose and arcadey, but with enough weight that driving a sports car, street sweeper and tank (yes, there are tanks) are markedly different experiences. The graphics aren’t always easy on the eyes, but they certainly suffice considering how big, busy and free of load times the open world is.
Perhaps more surprising is how much care goes into the coherence of a story and world in which anything and everything goes. “SR3’s” humor is juvenile, but it’s cleverly, sharply and even endearingly juvenile — more silly than obscene, though exceptions certainly apply when one mission involves rescuing a friend from a brothel via a rickshaw chase. The main character’s gender, voice and appearance are your calls to make thanks to “SR3’s” terrifically flexible character editor, but nothing you do changes the lengths the game goes to develop our hero and his/her friends, enemies and random weirdo acquaintances into legitimately good characters.
With that groundwork thoughtfully laid out, “SR3” is free to go completely bananas en route to creating the most shamelessly bombastic open-world game you can play today.
Where to start? How about the multi-factional war that pits the Saints against cops, Luchadores, supernatural beings, an armed-to-the-teeth private military and zombies all at once? Because every faction brings its own playable toys to the fray, you can (among numerous examples) jack and joyride a tank, wield a weapon that’s basically the Gravity Hammer from “Halo,” or steal a gunship and rain hellfire down on gang strongholds that fall under your control once cleared out.
And that’s just the first few hours. Without spoiling any specifics, “SR3’s” toy chest only gets crazier as you progress through its story and wrap your arms around the ridiculous cache of upgrades, properties, (very) customizable vehicles and not-of-this-world weapons that recurrently avail themselves to you.
Your default pistol, for instance? Outfit it with upgrades, and it shoots exploding projectiles that launch enemies airborne. Should you launch an enemy from a high altitude, “SR3” will measure how far he flies and reward you in the form of experience points.
In fact, pretty much everything you do — from balancing a handstand on a moving jet to driving on two wheels to flying through your windshield after a nasty crash — is tracked in some way for high score purposes and cashed in for experience that unlocks more surprises. “SR3” wants you to use this playground to goof off as creatively as you like, and it lets you know by rewarding you in some way for every single thing you do.
The only place “SR3” dials it back is with multiplayer, with “SR2’s” 12-player competitive multiplayer omitted completely. The two-player survival mode that replaces it is amusing, but considerably more limited in its novelty. Fortunately, two-player anything-goes co-op — which was the absolute best way to maximize “SR2’s” burgeoning goofiness — returns intact.
Jurassic Park: The Game
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox Live (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows, Mac
From: Telltale Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, use of tobacco, violence)
“Jurassic Park: The Game” might be the year’s most insulting game — but only if you even consider it a game at all. In truth, most of “Park’s” most would-be exciting moments — pitting you on the run from dinosaurs — are nothing more than interactive cutscenes. Press the button prompts when they appear, and you live to experience to the next cutscene; miss too many prompts, and you just do it over until you get it right. Not exactly immersive, and unfortunately, the stuff that takes place in between falls even flatter. Telltale cited “Heavy Rain” as its inspiration for “Park’s” methods of locomotion and interaction, but even that game gave you direct control over your characters in a 3D space. This one doesn’t, often reducing mundane motions like climbing stairs and cutting shrubs to dead-simple and repetitive button prompt exercises. Worst of all are the sections that task you with investigating a scene and deciding how to proceed: “Park” somewhat resembles a point-and-click adventure game here, but with all the points of interest highlighted for you via yet more button prompts, your brain need not even apply. Between this and dialogue trees that all seem to lead to the same place, the whole thing feels more like a VCR board game from 1988 than a video game from 2011. “Park” had potential to take the movies’ mythology down some fun new roads — it’s set directly after the first film’s conclusion — but it’s impossible to get immersed in a game that often appears to be playing itself while you press a button here and there to prod it along.