Games 8/17/10: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Quake Live

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
Coming soon for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, cartoon violence, language, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $10

Were “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” simply an awesome stab at capitalizing on a comic book and movie that itself lovingly rides the wave of 1980s video gaming nostalgia, it’d be a perfectly easy game to recommend.

But “Pilgrim” humbles simple nostalgia by taking those old games down avenues that either weren’t imagined or weren’t technologically possible back in their day. And it even does contemporary gaming a few better with a level of stylish abandon few games have the appetite to match.

This isn’t to suggest “Pilgrim” reinvents what it fundamentally is — a sidescrolling beat-em-up in the vein of “Double Dragon,” and especially “River City Ransom” — or that those who couldn’t get into those games 20 years ago will somehow get into this now. The objective remains the same, and while “Pilgrim” uses slightly more of the controller than its forebears could, it inevitably and regularly devolves into pounding the same couple of buttons when things get hairy.

But for those who still love the mindless reactionary action this genre provides, the contributions “Pilgrim” makes are wonderful. The game regularly crowds any given screen with enemies — as in up to a dozen or more — without slowing down even a trickle, and it’s just as generous with the variety and amount of items in the environment that players (and enemies) can use in lieu of fists and feet. A weird but enjoyably generous physics system allows quick-thinking players to use these objects in myriad creative ways — throwing a ball at an enemy, for instance, and then kicking the ball at another enemy after it bounces off the first guy’s face.

“Pilgrim’s” fighting controls are versatile and plenty responsive enough to offset the imposing imbalance of manpower, and a persistent leveling system adds new moves whenever players level up one of the game’s five playable characters. “Pilgrim” measures player and enemy attributes with a points system normally reserved for role-playing games, and acquired attributes carry over to new games, tempting completists to replay the game multiple times to fully max each character out. In a nice concession, acquired experience carries over even when players lose all lives and have to otherwise restart a level. Like its influences, “Pilgrim” is a tough game even on its default setting, but it’s savvy enough to give players some sense of progress even when all else fails.

While “Pilgrim” truly succeeds on the strength of its gameplay, it likely will be best remembered for its audiovisual style, which combines garishly pixelated graphics and high-definition polish to marvelous effect and slaps on a magnificent chiptunes soundtrack that would be iconic today if it had originally debuted 20 years ago. Thematically, “Pilgrim’s” levels run the gamut — a rock concert here, a dojo there — and it mines those themes while piling on numerous callbacks to gaming’s past for a presentation that is nothing short of blissful.

While “Pilgrim” supports four-player local co-op to frantically fun effect, the only place the game feels dated in all the wrong ways is in its failure to deliver an online equivalent. The sheer insanity of the action is miles more fun with three friends in the same room, but for those who lack that option, the omission of any kind of conciliatory prize is a major blemish in what otherwise is a work of art.


Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network, Windows PC
From: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, violence)
Price: $15

Given the lack of “Tomb Raider” in the name, to say nothing of the budget price and downloadable state of the game, one might mistakenly assume “Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light” is a lark for player and creator alike while everybody waits for the next proper “Raider” game to appear and get Lara back to doing what she does best.

But that isn’t necessarily so — and actually, it may be those who don’t normally take to “Raider” who might enjoy “Light” most of all.

Though “Light’s” storyline and environments very obviously exist in “Raider’s” universe, the actual game generally eschews the epic environmental platforming challenges that are the series’ typical centerpiece. Instead, “Light” takes place from an overheard isometric perspective, and like “Diablo” and other games that share that viewpoint, its primary ingredient is combat.

Lara has never excelled at combat from close range, but from high above, she’s a natural. “Light’s” controls — left stick to move, right stick to aim, trigger to fire — are a natural convergence of twin-stick and traditional third-person shooters, and outside of providing players a nice variety of weapons to discover and use, the game doesn’t muck with time-tested conventions. In a nice touch, “Light” scores players based on their ability to dispatch enemies and discover hidden treasure, and each level has optional score challenges on top of other bonus objectives that, upon completion, reward players with special weapons and upgrades.

The combat and scoring systems make no bones about “Light” being a more arcadey experience than traditional “Raider” games, so it’s all the more pleasantly surprising when it becomes apparent just how much the game still offers to those with a penchant for exploration. Platforming challenges are significantly less ambitious than in the proper games, but they’re here, and “Light’s” control scheme allows Lara to jump, climb, and swing around environments and puzzles that provide a satisfying challenge without overshadowing the combat.

Additionally, while “Light” doesn’t stop players from beelining through the primary objectives, the slew of optional challenges that lie off the beaten path — including self-contained challenge rooms that dangle additional rewards at the end of the puzzle — also provide many of the game’s most gratifying and fun challenges.

As the story explains, “Light” supports two-player co-op throughout the campaign, and a crop of bonus speed-run challenges are clearly designed with two players in mind. At the same time, dueling scores encourage players to get the kills and gems and one-up each other. “Light’s” execution of co-op play is as no-nonsense and functional as one expects it to be, and the loose treatment lets players be as ancillary or antagonizing as they wish.

Unfortunately, until late September, it’s also local only. Crystal Dynamics plans to patch online co-op into the Xbox Live version and include it out of the gate when “Light” comes to Windows and Playstation 3, and the patch will naturally be free. Still, if you’re downloading “Light” specifically for the online co-op experience, you still have six weeks of waiting to do.


Quake Live
For: Various Web browsers (Windows PC/Macintosh/Linux)
From: id Software/Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: Free for basic account, $24/year for premium account, $48/year for pro account

Stunning though today’s games are, there may be no better demonstration of gaming’s rapid technological growth than the ability to open up a browser window and play something that brought computers to their knees barely 10 years ago. But that’s what “Quake Live” does: It takes the underpinnings of “Quake III: Arena,” builds a persistent community and modern interface around it, and, at its base level, gives the thing away to anybody willing to set up an account and download the plug-in needed to make it run. The game looks predictably dated, but it hardly matters given how smoothly and quickly it runs, and the essence that drove “Arena” in 1999 — fast, trigger-happy action and lots of weapons, maps and customizable modes to keep players engaged — still burns bright today. “Live’s” out-of-game particulars all take place via a Web portal that makes it easy to manage friends, build clans, customize characters and keep track of leaderboards, achievements, rewards and character experience. Perhaps most pleasantly surprising, though, is a suite of tutorials and practice arenas that allow nervous newbies to practice against A.I. opponents, making “Live” as inviting to try out as it is easy to set up. “Live’s” release from beta status keeps it free to play on its base level, but for those who plan on digging in, the premium (20 additional maps, one extra mode, additional awards and clan/stat-tracking support) and pro (self-hosted server support, limited premium content sharing with friends, yet more additional awards and clan/stat-tracking support) subscription plans are available as well.