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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games 6/14/11: Duke Nukem Forever, Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters, kijjaa!

Duke Nukem Forever
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Gearbox Software/3D Realms/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol)
Price: $60

As perhaps you feared, the real-life saga of “Duke Nukem Forever’s” development — 14 years, numerous reboots, a developer’s demise and a 13th-hour rescue after the project had seemingly been buried for the final time — is more engrossing than the game itself. When the public finally gets its hands on “Forever” this week, more players than not will wonder what, exactly, took so long.

At the same time, “Forever” is more good than bad and more fun than not. Its spottiness is doubtlessly the fault of taking an eighth grader’s lifetime to complete development, but it’s also borne out of a willingness to try (and sometimes succeed at) things most contemporary first-person shooters would never attempt.

Because “Forever’s” titular character has a sense of humor more reflective of gaming’s juvenilia than its present condition, “Forever” finds itself wildly at odds with the same audience that was raring to play it in 1997. Time hasn’t been kind to Duke, and while some of “Forever’s” self-referential humor is pretty funny — Duke is now a celebrity with more endorsements than Krusty the Clown — most of it falls flat (often embarrassingly so).

Age spots pop up elsewhere — most painfully in the long loading times, but most noticeably in the graphics, which feature objects and textures that range from decent by today’s standards to awful even for an early Playstation 2 (that’s 2, not 3) game. Were the game’s development not so famously documented, you might wonder if the disparity was some kind of in-joke you’re not getting.

So how does it play? As a shooter, pretty well — and, beyond the ability to sprint, look down sights and regenerate health, remarkably similar to 1996’s “Duke Nukem 3D.” That game’s enemies return with a few new friends here, and while their intelligence is dead simple and there’s little in the way of attack strategy, they’re relentless enough to continually put up a fast, intense fight.

In some ways, “Forever’s” age is even a benefit. Because where most modern shooters add “variety” via cinematic but unimaginative sequences on vehicles or rails, this one makes like its forebears and throws out whatever weird idea it can dream up.

Sometimes, it falls flat. A few sequences that leave Duke as a sitting duck feel slightly cheap. Underwater levels, though short, are as unfun as ever. A mid-game boss fight takes too long despite hinging on a clever combat trick, and there’s a weird moment with an elevator lever that doesn’t immediately make sense.

But a challenge involving an RC car you must control with a virtual remote is brilliant, and driving that car later as shrunken Duke is a blast. (Driving Duke’s monster truck at full size is even better.) A platforming run through a kitchen as shrunken Duke is, while a bit long, really clever in its level design, and “Forever” even manages to make a valve-turning puzzle fun — even if Duke himself voices his disapproval.

Even when “Forever’s” willingness to try anything backfires, it provides an element of surprise that makes the oddities and shortcomings considerably easier to forgive than they otherwise might be.

“Forever’s” multiplayer, meanwhile, is completely trapped in time, with the modes (deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, king of the hill) you expect and the same run-and-gun sensibility that powered “Duke 3D.” It works well enough, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you miss that approach. For collectors who enjoy rewards, an experience points system lets you unlock merchandise for Duke’s virtual mansion, which is good for some light amusement but little else.

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Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii and Nintendo DS
From: Double Helix/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Numerous games have, let’s say, paid homage to the “God of War” series since its 2005 debut.

Some of them do it subtly. Others, like “Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters,” don’t conceal it at all.

But if “Lantern” has to pilfer shamelessly, at least it does so competently. And for all the imagination it lacks with its fundamentals, the game redeems itself by using its license in enough clever ways to (slightly) carve its own path.

Initially, it’s in earnest, thanks to the abilities made possible by Hal Jordan’s (the Green Lantern, for those unfamiliar) amazing Green Power Ring. The ring allows Hal to project solid-light constructs that assume the abilities of whatever object they’re mimicking. So instead of slamming two blades to the ground with extreme force the way Kratos does in “God of War,” for instance, Hal whips out a giant glowing hammer and unleashes damage that way.

The amount of fun “Lantern” becomes is directly proportional to the rate at which you unlock new constructs for Hal’s ring. Early on, it works as a makeshift blaster, allowing Hal to attack from long distances. A terrific grappling leash — which, at its tip, resembles a giant cartoon hand — lets him pick up enemies or objects, draw them in close, and throw them at other targets or clear off a ledge for an easy kill.

But wait, there’s more! A baseball bat lets Hal channel his inner Albert Pujols and whack projectile attacks back at the source of the attack, while a gatling gun lets him go Scarface on whomever is nearby. Other powers include droppable (and throwable) mines, a fast-punch attack that mimics a piston engine, and even the ability to briefly transform into a mech and (albeit slowly) unleash ridiculous damage on any nearby enemies.

The wealth of clever constructs easily provides “Lantern” with its best feature, and some thoughtful controller mapping means you can assign up to eight at a time to button shortcuts that are easy to call up even when things get hairy.

Beyond that, though, there’s little here you haven’t seen elsewhere. “Lantern” competently mimics “God of War,” but it borrows the bad as well as the good. That game’s lacking enemy variety is this game’s lacking enemy variety, and if you don’t like the quick-time events that cap off battles against that game’s stronger enemies, you’ll be sorry to see them here as well.

Though it provides occasion to take good advantage of Hal’s constructs, “Lantern’s” general level design isn’t terribly exciting, either. Beyond the occasional clever puzzle, expect to see the same patterns of enemies pop up in places that often look similar and present simple objectives — switches, powering up dead battery ports — you’ve seen before. Even some of the bigger boss fights feel a little too familiar. Remember that enemy you’ve seen in other games who is 100 times your size and tries to kill you by sweeping his hand across the entire level? He’s still getting work.

Fortunately, in spite of these issues, “Lantern” is fast and technically refined enough to remain fun throughout its campaign. What it lacks in terms of presenting diverse problems, it somewhat redeems in terms of diverse solutions. Mix up your constructs cleverly, and “Lantern” will feel significantly less repetitive than it probably should.

Unfortunately, once the campaign wra
ps, there’s little else to do. “Lantern” supports two-player co-op, but only offline. And while “God of War” pads its value with challenge rooms and reasons to replay the main quest, “Lantern” opted not to copy that step.

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kijjaa!
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Kijjaa Ltd
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (frequent/intense cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $1

Nintendo made a big splash last week with the public unveiling of the Wii U, but it’s far from the only company experimenting with gameplay that has one device’s screen controlling another. Take, for instance, “kijjaa!,” which uses the iPhone and iPod Touch to control a game that takes place on any screen you own that can display a Web browser with Flash. Visit the website (kijjaa.com/air), enter the code it displays into the game’s screen on your iPhone or iPod Touch, and a moment later, you’re using that device (tilt to steer, onscreen buttons to fire) to control a faux-3D space shooter in the Web browser. “kijjaa!” isn’t terribly elaborate as shooters go: You shoot approaching ships, projectiles and boss enemies and try to stay alive while racking up a high score. But as a proof of concept, it’s pretty awesome. Provided you have a decent Internet connection, it also just works, interpreting your tilting and shooting with enough responsiveness that your device might as well be plugged into the computer. (If you have an iPhone, the device even vibrates when an enemy hits your ship.) Nintendo’s offerings will doubtlessly be more ambitious and jaw-dropping than this, but with that console likely more than a year away from being on sale, “kijjaa!” does a nice job of going hands-on right now with a sliver of these possibilities. For score hunters, it also supports Game Center leaderboards (though no achievements as of version 1.1).


Games 2/22/11: de Blob 2, Stacking, Battleheart

de Blob 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Blue Tongue/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, mild language)

Any conversation about criminally overlooked Wii games should have “de Blob” in the first paragraph, if not the lead, so THQ deserves commendation for giving the series a second chance on more (and better) hardware.

Fundamentally, “de Blob 2” doesn’t break significant ground so much as make a more ambitious and more diverse return to form. You still play as Blob, a hyper-absorbent and deeply charming ball of goo whose primary abilities include rolling, jumping, smashing and absorbing different colors of paint, which he can use to turn the colorless buildings and citizens of Prisma City into their happy former selves.

To that end, the story remains the same: Free everyone and everything from the INKT Corporation’s monochromatic rule, in what almost certainly will be the cutest allegory you’ll ever see for regime takeover and democratic revolution. Like the first game, it’s charm run amok, with adorable character design, genuinely funny dialogue and a soundtrack that brilliantly bends to your actions in the game.

Primarily, the revolution comes via Blob painting every last square inch of “dB2’s” 11 levels, which also include missions centered around liberating citizens, sabotaging INKT technology and other objectives related to level design and story events.

The levels — which include a cola plant, a prison zoo and the Inktron Collider, to name three examples — are large enough to qualify as open worlds, and as long as time remains on the clock, Blob is free to tackle secondary objectives as well as main story missions in whatever fashion suits him. The clock is meant to keep players constantly moving, and it succeeds in just the right way: The time limits are generous on both difficulty settings, there are umpteen ways to add time, and once the main objectives are complete, the clock disappears and “dB2” lets you complete the rest of the level at your leisure.

All of this was true of “dB1,” too. But the series’ extremely unique underpinnings make the initial familiarity more forgivable than it might otherwise be, and the changes “dB2” does introduce are almost always welcome ones.

Most notable are the new sabotage missions that take Blob underground and play like a sidescrolling game instead of the traditional 3D action you see above ground. The new perspective lets “dB2” design a whole new flavor of challenges that still capitalize on the core concepts, and when these mini-levels bump up their difficulty later on, they occasionally outshine the bigger levels.

“dB2” also offers a limited offline co-op feature that allows a second player (as Blob’s friend Pinky) to shoot paint at environments, enemies and Blob himself using a targeting reticule. It isn’t nearly as involved as controlling Blob himself, but it adds a fun social element to the game, and if you’re playing the PS3 version, it’s an ideal use of the Playstation Move wand, which “dB2” supports throughout all its modes.

Elsewhere, the changes are customary but appreciated. The mission objectives are more diverse than last time, and “dB2” gradually introduces new powerups and gadgets that increase both Blob’s arsenal and the kind of missions he can encounter. It’s unquestionably more of the same basic gameplay, but the little surprises “dB2” reveals (three words: wrecking ball Blob) over its surprisingly lengthy adventure are enough to keep a great concept blessed with great execution going strong.

Provided you aren’t restricted to playing “dB2” on the Wii, the better hardware also helps. “dB2” looks terrific in high definition, and it benefits from a more traditional controller’s ability to control the camera without the kind of fuss that unfortunately comes standard on the Wii.

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Stacking
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Double Fine Productions/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, mild cartoon violence, mild suggestive themes, use of tobacco)
Price: $15

This is what happens when a developer with big-budget talent and an independent spirit flourishes on a platform that allows it to flex both characteristics at once: You get a game in which you play as a Russian nesting doll.

(In case the term isn’t ringing a bell, Russian nesting dolls are those little wooden dolls that fit inside each other. You open one, and a smaller one is inside. Open that one, and an even smaller one is inside.)

“Stacking” brings those dolls to life, starring you as a tiny stacking doll named Charlie and tasking you with rescuing your family from an evil baron who has kidnapped and sentenced them to involuntary servitude.

By himself, Charlie is overmatched. But he has the ability to “stack” into any doll who is one degree larger than him and assume control of that character. That character, in turn, can stack into an even larger doll, and the process continues until you achieve control over the game’s largest (and, usually, most influential) dolls.

“Stacking” arranges its story by putting each imperiled family member in a different environment — a cruise ship, a zeppelin, a triple-decker train — and connecting everything with a similarly spacious hub level set inside a train station. Charlie is free to roam the environments as he likes, and you can inhabit any character, major or minor, who is roaming about.

Every character has a special maneuver he or she can perform — some of them crucial to the story (a widow seducing a guard into leaving his post), some useful (a woman with a spyglass can quickly discern which characters qualify as significant), some silly (dancing, playing paddleball, or performing various acts of mischief, which the game rewards through a suite of optional challenges).

The trick to saving Charlie’s family is to use the right dolls in the right ways to solve various cause-and-effect riddles, which generally involve getting around, influencing or assuming control of powerful dolls who won’t let Charlie get by them in his default form.

At its most linear, this isn’t terribly difficult, nor is “Stacking” particularly lengthly (a few hours, maybe) if you rush through the storyline and ignore the optional content.

But “Stacking” makes a terrific decision to give every challenge multiple solutions, and the players who will truly enjoy this game are the ones who come back to figure out every solution to every problem. Every challenge has an easy solution that’s made somewhat obvious by the presence of certain dolls in the vicinity, but the more obscure solutions require some inventiveness and often involve using dolls the game hasn’t labeled as significant. Other optional objectives, including the aforementioned mischief-making and a great challenge that involves reuniting other families by finding and stacking them together, give “Stacking” a lot more activity than initially meets the eye.

It also gives players an excuse to spend more time in the absolutely delightful world Double Fine has designed. “Stacking’s” dolls really look like living nesting dolls, from the expressions on their faces to the polished wooden sheen they give off to the wobbly, stop-motion-esque animation of their every movement. The rest of the world, which feels like a collection of early 20th century miniatures come alive, provides a beautiful complement. Even the cutscenes play along by mimicking a
silent film reel — piano soundtrack, written dialogue frames, film artifacts and all. The storytelling runs a bit heavy in “Stacking’s” early going, but its presentation is so novel that the excess is easily forgiven.

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Battleheart
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Mika Mobile
iTunes Store rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $3

As games that blend genres and take advantage of platform strengths go, it rarely gets better than this. On paper, “Battleheart” reads like a role-playing game: You assemble a party of characters with different strengths, upgrade those strengths by accruing experience and gold in battle, and use that gold to buy, sell and upgrade weapons, armor and other items with special attributes. But where most RPGs lean heavily on story, “Battleheart” all but skips it. Instead, the battles — which the game distributes across selectable levels almost like an arcade game — are the end as well as the means. That’s fine, too, because where most RPGs use a battle system that’s turn-based and menu-driven, “Battleheart” opts instead for a frantic, hands-on system that plays like a real-time strategy game on caffeine. Players control up to four characters at once, and commanding them is as simple as drawing a path for them, pointing them at specific enemies to attack, and occasionally tapping an icon to activate a spell. The simple controls — which nicely complement the game’s clean, ultra-cartoony look — prove a perfect fit once “Battleheart’s” introductory levels quickly give way to some seriously chaotic skirmishes. Things get crowded to a fault sometimes, especially on the smaller iPhone screen, but it’s an acceptable side effect of “Battleheart’s” refusal to compromise its thirst for chaos.


Games 2/8/11: Test Drive Unlimited 2, Mario Sports Mix, We Bowl

Test Drive Unlimited 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Eden Games/Atari
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, simulated gambling, mild suggestive themes)

In 2006, “Test Drive Unlimited” gave console racing game fans something — an open world swimming with other players driving and racing freely — they’d never had before.

Then four-plus years passed with no one else even trying it again.

So to call “Test Drive Unlimited 2’s” arrival welcome is to understate a bit, especially when the sequel produces two freely-explorable islands (Ibiza and Hawaii) instead of one, adds storytelling and structural enhancements to the single-player side, increases event diversity, and fixes just about everything — from vehicle handling to interface design — that had room for improvement.

Like its predecessor, “TDU2” blurs the line between single- and multiplayer to create a single, fluid experience. The islands are teeming with A.I. traffic regardless of player count, and those who prefer to drive offline will still encounter A.I.-controlled “players” who behave and can be challenged to instant races like a real human opponent.

Regardless of how you play, there’s plenty to do without the company of others. “TDU2” offers three tiers of driving — two street class, one off-road — and each has a ladder of license tests and competitions to win. These events run the gamut, including traditional/elimination-style races, time trials, speed trap competitions and other usual suspects. The out-of-event challenges are a bit less traditional, testing your ability to drive safely, maintain a dangerous speed and even tail another car without raising suspicion.

Like an MMO, “TDU2” rewards you cash and experience points for just about everything you do, be it competition points for winning events, social points for engaging other players or discovery points for finding car dealerships, mechanics and even clothing stores, salons and plastic surgeons (really) for your customizable avatar. “TDU2” allows you to control your avatar out of the car when at home or in places — shops, social clubs — where other players’ avatars may also visit, and you’re as free to challenge and socialize in these instances as you are on the road.

Keeping track of events, stats, shops and other players would be dicey without an interface to keep it together, but “TDU2’s” menu system is about as polished as controller-friendly console interfaces get. It’s pretty, it’s meticulously organized, you can use filters to reduce map icon clutter, and the in-game GPS works perfectly — even allowing you to fast-travel to events if you visited the road previously.

The best news about “TDU2’s” multiplayer? It just works. When you enter the world, players just appear. And while that wonderful interface gives you numerous ways to invite friends and create lobbies, clubs and multiplayer variations of just about every challenge (including cop chases) from the single-player experience, the ability to just cut off another human driver, engage in some impromptu street racing, and set up (and gamble on) a race with a tap of the high beams is immensely gratifying.

But the best news about “TDU2,” period, is how much fun it is to just drive these vehicles. The lower-tier cars are easy to control without feeling pokey, while the high-end models reward skillful pedal management with a fantastic sense of weight dueling with speed.

But it’s the availability off-road vehicles — and, new to the series, the freedom to drive absolutely anywhere on the islands, road or not — that will doubtlessly steal the show for some. “TDU2” nails the joy of taking hairpin turns in the mud and grassy roads, and the off-road competitions are responsible for every bit as much excitement as highest level of the high-end races.

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Mario Sports Mix
For: Wii
From: Square-Enix/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

With respect to the “Wii Sports” titles and the clever ways they introduced motion gaming to the masses, they’re nowhere near the best sports games to release under Nintendo’s watch. That distinction instead goes to the Mario Sports games, and while it stagnates in some areas, “Mario Sports Mix” very capably reminds us why.

Unlike most Mario sports games, “Mix” takes on four sports — hockey, basketball, volleyball, dodgeball — instead of one.

But while stretching it thin does come at a price — there’s no career mode like the baseball-centric “Mario Super Sluggers” had three years ago, for instance — it doesn’t result in “Mix” diluting its sports and reducing them to glorified mini-games the way “Wii Sports” does. They’re casual representations, and hockey and basketball support three-on-three and two-on-two play instead of five-on-five. But the games control traditionally (either with a remote-and-nunchuck configuration or just the remote held sideways) rather than as motion control demonstrations, so there’s no need to strip away entire facets of the sport the way “Wii Sports” had to do.

The emphasis on traditional controls is a welcome show of restraint for a series that could have gone the complete other way. “Mix” keeps the basics of each sport super simple while creating a second layer of slightly advanced techniques — dekes, fakes, special shots — for skilled players who endeavor to use them. Some controls involve shaking the remote, but none involves any kind of gesture recognition, which allows “Mix” to maintain the high tempo that’s synonymous with these games. The Mario sports games have always compensated for their simplicity with an insatiable taste for speed and controlled chaos, and “Mix” keeps up beautifully.

“Mix” upholds additional series conventions by going appropriately nuts with the Mario iconography. The game’s cast of playable characters remains disappointingly thin — there are no new additions unless you count your Mii avatar — but each sport has a healthy selection of themed stadiums and courts that bring with them unique rules, conditions and sometimes obstructions. A manageable influx of “Mario Kart”-style special items allows for the temporary disruption of opposing game plans, and each character has super moves that are awfully tough to stop (but, in an ever-welcome touch, are not unstoppable if you’re quick enough).

“Mix’s” tepid single-player depth is disappointing: The usual Mushroom/Flower/Star Cup tournaments are accounted for, but also per usual, the difficulty is too tame to challenge even moderately talented players. Solo players can always play online, and the game’s interface and stat tracking (as well as its performance) are satisfactory. But the lack of voice chat support puts a damper on that experience as well. (Has Nintendo forgetten about its own voice chat peripheral? Seems so.)

But as has always been the case with these games, “Mix” is exponentially at its best when you’re playing with others in the same room. The combination of speed, chaos and simple but polished controls makes this a terrific party game that strikes an enviable balance between accessibility and excitement, and the four sports represented here are natural fits for the formula. “Mix,” to its credit, supports local multiplayer just about everywhere, including tournament play (three players), online co-op (two) and traditional competitive play (four).

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We Bowl
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Freeverse
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: It’s complicated

Freeverse has demonstrated a mastery of dangling carrots with its outstanding “Skee-Ball” and improbably addictive “Coin Push Frenzy” iOS games. But it errs miserably with “We Bowl,” which validates every concern ever expressed regarding the “freemium” game model. On the surface, “Bowl” is a pleasant — albeit unspectacular, thanks to stiff controls — bowling game. Like “Skee-Ball,” it rewards good performance with tickets that, once accumulated, can unlock pins, props and clothes for your customized bowling alley and bowler. Problem is, “Bowl” is only playable when you have golden balls, which is its form of in-game currency. You start with 20, each throw costs one, and when you run out — even mid-game — you either have to wait 30 seconds to bowl again (and then wait again) or pay real money to purchase a “bag” instantly. “Bowl” clearly wants to you exercise option B if the blanketing of “Buy this!” reminders is any indication, and the net result of waiting and being pelted with ads for balls (along with other ads that are easy to accidentally tap) is so much worse than if “Bowl” had just asked for a few bucks up front and left you alone to play the game. The bowling isn’t good enough for this hassle to be worthwhile, and the only thing “Bowl” nails is how to alienate customers before they can even drop a dime.


Games 12/14/10: uDraw GameTablet, uDraw Studio, The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout, The Moonsters

uDraw GameTablet (includes uDraw Studio)
For: Wii
From: Pipeworks Software/THQ
Price: $70
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It probably goes without saying, but just in case it doesn’t, the uDraw GameTablet and accompanying “uDraw Studio” software are not optimized to facilitate the creation of serious artwork. The tablet isn’t as pressure-sensitive as a comparably-priced PC tablet, and while you can export your artwork to an SD card, the dimensions of the image (576 pixels wide, 396 pixels long) and the presence of a “uDraw Studio” watermark in the lower left corner aren’t exactly conducive to any kind of presentation beyond sharing with friends.

But just as “Mario Paint” became a sensation in 1992 despite coming nowhere close to playing in Adobe Premiere’s ballpark, “Studio” need not mimic Corel Paint to fulfill its promise as a fun and inexpensive outlet for kids and casual artists to flash some creativity. And because THQ has accompanied the uDraw’s launch with two other games that take advantage of the device in wholly different ways, it has positioned it as perhaps the only Wii peripheral besides the Balance Board to receive meaningful software support going forward.

Quibbles with pressure sensitivity aside, the uDraw is otherwise gifted with smart design choices. It contains a slot in which to pop a Wii remote, which gives the device a familiar array of buttons on the left side and access to the B trigger on the underside. The remote also provides all power to the tablet, which means that in addition to requiring no extra batteries, the tablet is as wireless and easy to pass around as any other controller.

The large stylus contains a useful two-function button (imagine a computer mouse’s two buttons fused into one) on its side, and while it is tethered to the tablet, the cord does not detract from the comfort of holding it. In a nice touch, the tablet includes two spots for storing the stylus — flat on the underside or like a quill in the top right corner — when not in use.

“Studio’s” design isn’t quite so elegant, and parents should make a point to run through the manual in order to help kids get comfortable with what initially is an intimidating and clumsily-arranged menu interface. “Studio’s” range of tools — multiple painting and drawing tools, multiple color pickers, stamps, filters — is impressive, but its interface organization requires some patient acclimation before it feels natural. (Tip: Though you can activate and navigate the tools palettes with the stylus buttons, using the remote is considerably more convenient.)

The good news is that once it feels natural, actually drawing with the uDraw works well. The limited pressure sensitivity provides some roadblocks, but it’s still entirely possible to create some legitimately great art using the tools on hand. The limitations placed on exported files is a real downer, but anyone who simply wants to sketch, save and share their creations can still easily do so if those limitations aren’t a problem.

It’s entirely feasible, anyway, that THQ could follow up “Studio” with a more powerful, more streamlined sequel, because the studio so far has backed up its claims that it will support the uDraw with more software than Nintendo usually produces for its own neglected peripherals. Already, the puzzle adventure game “Dood’s Big Adventure” provides a great showcase of the tablet’s strengths as applied to a traditional video game, while “Pictionary” freshens up a classic party game and demonstrates how much fun it is to pass the tablet around the room. THQ claims it has software tentatively lined up for release through the beginning of 2012, so the tablet’s future appears to be a bright one.

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The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Blitz Games/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The paradoxically great news about “The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout” is that while it makes an alarmingly unfavorable first impression by botching the easy part, it redeems itself 10 times over by getting the hard part right — and, in doing so, demonstrating how viable Kinect is as a fitness tool.

Before you find that out, though, you must contend with the game’s menu interface, which is an exercise in itself. Very few Kinect games have demonstrated an aptitude for controller-free menu navigation, and “Workout” is especially poor. The buttons are too small, the time needed to hold your hand in place to activate them is too long, and the cursor compounds these issues by having a slight mind of its own and occasionally wandering off the button just before it activates. With practice and some familiarity with the wandering cursor’s ways, the problem becomes surmountable in the main menus. But when the interface calls for more precision — most notably, during the character creation area — you’ll just wish Microsoft would force developers to enable the controller as an optional means for menu navigation.

Fortunately, “Workout” demonstrates a whole different level of savvy when the task of actually working out is at hand.

Though “Workout” lets you take on its exercises as you please, its best offering is the availability of circuit-training sessions designed by trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, whose likenesses appear in the game as personal trainers. “Workout” allows you to design your own sessions, but its strength is its ability to tailor routines around basic settings (difficulty, length) and lay them out in a Fitness Program mode that gives you a calendar, goals and a clear picture of forward progress.

In action, the game absolutely shines. During all activities, a solid-colored likeness of your real self appears in the lower right corner, and the color of that likeness — ranging from green (perfect) to yellow (OK) to red (bad) — provides simple, continual feedback on how closely you’re replicating each exercise. Additional details above and below the likeness offer more specific feedback, making it easy to see what you’re doing wrong and what adjustments are necessary to correct it. The trainers repeat their lines a lot, sometimes consecutively, but for exercises that have you facing sideways, the spoken feedback’s value outweighs its repetition. (Thanks to the Kinect’s microphone, you can even talk back when your trainer asks if you need a break or are ready for something tougher.)

All this feedback checks out, too, because “Workout” is surprisingly good at reading and diagnosing the specifics of its exercises. Misinterpretations are inevitable, but the game never completely fouls up even when an exercise seems too complex for Kinect’s eyes, and the constant feedback makes it easy to understand and correct the source of the confusion when it pops up.

“Workout’s” impressive capacity makes it easy to let the Fitness Program take the lead and throw out whatever workout sessions it feels are best for your personal progress, and those willing to let it go further can also utilize the game’s secondary features, which include fitness tips, a calorie tracker, body analysis, extracurricular activities and mini-game challenges inspired by the challenges seen on the show. Those who want the full show experience can even participate in weigh-ins and record video diaries for posterity. You can’t plot against your fellow ranchers like they so often do on the show, but up to four players can play challenges and participate in multiplayer workouts over Xbox Live.

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The Moonsters
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Ars Thanea
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1

Though it’s easy and helpful to compare the basic controls of “The Moonsters” to those of “Angry Birds,” the game does too much differently — and does it too well — to simply dismiss it as yet another “Birds” imitation product. Instead of launching birds sideways, you’re launching a trio of silly looking aliens (called Moonsters) upward. The goal is to collect pieces of space tofu sprinkled around the area rather than wreak havoc. The key to a perfectly-placed shot relies more on geometry than physics. And instead of allowing multiple attempts per round, “The Moonsters” wants you to collect all the tofu in one strike. Perfection isn’t mandatory, and so long as you collect enough pieces to meet each level’s quota, the game scores and grades the effort and opens up the next level. But “The Moonsters” is most fun when it comes down to discovering the secret angle that results in a perfect score in each of the 100 levels, and it further encourages chasing perfection with Game Center achievements, high score leaderboards, a completely painless trial-and-error interface, and a story with three unlockable endings. Those secret endings hold more value than is initially apparent, because in addition to playing well, “The Moonsters” is gifted with a charming story, great character design, a sublime graphical style, and some of the most pleasantly catchy music to grace a mobile phone game.


Games 10/5/10: Haunted House, Coin Push Frenzy

Haunted House
Reviewed for: Wii
Also available for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade, Windows PC
From: ImaginEngine/Atari
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (language, mild blood, mild cartoon violence)

The 1982 Atari 2600 game “Haunted House” is treasured for numerous reasons, but user-friendliness never was one of them. Even by the 2600’s standards, it was intimidatingly cryptic — which, for purposes of exploring a haunted house in complete darkness, is an arguable asset rather than a liability.

The new “House” isn’t nearly so bold, because in this age and in its reincarnated state as a family-friendly game, it cannot afford to be. So there’s a storyline, there are objectives, and the house actually looks like a house instead of a series of barren, indistinguishable rooms. Players still control an avatar that’s nothing but a pair of eyeballs in darkened rooms, but that darkness no longer is pitch black, and using readily available light sources turns the eyes into a full character.

Those who would’ve liked to see Atari buck convention and deliver a game as insanely imposing as the original will doubtlessly be disappointed by just about every word in the above paragraph.

But if the goal is to freshen up an old property for a new audience — and, in the process, deliver that rare Halloween-themed game that isn’t tagged with blood, violence and an M rating from the ESRB — this is a job well done.

Primarily, that’s because “House” preserves the original game’s gameplay style in spite of all it changes. The action still takes place from an overhead perspective, and players still freely explore each stage of the mansion while searching for keys and other items that open new passageways, illuminate darkened areas and ward off ghosts and other enemies. The controls are as straightforward as ever, and motion control gimmickry is kept to a minimum.

The new enhancements aren’t half-bad, either. The cartoony graphical style is appealing and colorful without betraying the mood, and “House” finds a very happy medium by telling much of its story through collectible letters and journals that give players something else to discover (and also keep them playing the game instead of watching needless cutscenes).

“House’s” softer difficulty will be a bone of contention for the 1982 crowd, but while the game doesn’t punish players, it also doesn’t roll over. Skilled older players likely will find much of it too easy, but kids and novices should find the difficulty just right, and “House’s” support for two-player local co-op makes it a terrific game for parents and older siblings to play with younger or less experienced members of the household. It isn’t as spooky with a second character in the room, but taking on the mansion as a team makes for a fun wrinkle to the formula.

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Coin Push Frenzy
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Freeverse/ngmoco
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: Free

“Coin Push Frenzy” isn’t so much a game as a fiendishly faithful simulation of the coin push game (insert quarter, watch it fall and hope it pushes other quarters off the platform) normally seen at arcades and carnivals. Playing takes no skill beyond tapping to drop a coin in a specific spot, and players lay at the mercy of the same cruel physics that betray them in the real thing. Somehow, the compulsion to try again also carries over, and “Frenzy” goes further by dotting the coin pile with prize boxes that contain powerups and collectables good toward unlocking new machine themes. “Frenzy’s” conduit for compulsion doesn’t require any monetary investment on players’ part, but the truly hooked might pay up anyway: The game’s free, the first 50 coins are free, and “Frenzy” restocks that 50-coin allowance with a free coin either every 30 seconds (when playing) or three minutes (when not). That sounds plentiful, but when you’re tapped out, hooked and reduced to slowly playing one coin at a time for minimal impact, those in-app purchases — $1 for 250 coins, $4 for 1,000 — are a tantalizing shortcut to replenished riches. Why those riches even matter is beyond rationalization, considering this is a non-game with nothing but fake rewards at stake, but the dangerous “one more coin!” sensation is as hard to shake as it is to explain.


Games 9/28/10: Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, NHL Slapshot, NHL 2K11, NHL 11, Puzzle Agent

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo DS
From: Beenox/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

When “Spider-Man 2” gave players a chance to swing freely as Spidey through open-world New York City, it was revolutionary. When “Spider-Man 3” did the exact same thing in high definition, it was fine. And when “Web of Shadows” repeated the trick a year later, it was kind of old.

“Shattered Dimensions,” by contrast, goes back to a model that pre-dates the revolution. There are 13 levels, each with its own environment and boss villain, and while most of the levels are roomy and ripe for exploration, there’s a continuous forward progression not found in those open-world games.

Guess what? It feels fresh again, and the distinctive qualities and greater sense of purpose each level has far outweigh the freedom to go anywhere at any time. Along with the magnificent job Beenox does of cramming so many aspects of the Spider-Man universe into a surprisingly lengthy game, it’s arguably the best “Spider-Man” game ever made.

The “Dimensions” name comes from the game’s big hook — the ability to play as four different Spider-Men (Amazing, Ultimate, 2099 and Noir) who work together in different dimensions to save the universe from tearing to shreds.

The different Spideys naturally have different abilities. Ultimate Spider-Man, for instance, is built to handle more enemies at a time than the others, while Noir Spidey compensates for his iffy fighting abilities by being able to hide in shadows and dispatch enemies before they even see him.

The four Spideys share a base control scheme, but they operate differently enough to give the game a surprising array of variety, and “Dimensions” rises to the occasion by designing levels and even visual styles (cel shading for Amazing Spidey, lighting effects run wild for 2099, sepia tones for Noir) that feel distinctive and play to each characters’ (and villains’) styles.

Compounding the variety between the different dimensions is a total willingness on the game’s part not only to have as much fun as possible with the license — the game flashes excellent voice acting and a sense of humor that hits far more than misses — but also to just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.

Sometimes, it doesn’t work: Some levels drag on for too long with repetitive combat, while certain stretches shine a light on the things (wall-climbing, namely) the controls and camera don’t handle so well.

More than not, though, the results sing. Zip-swinging through a tornado of debris in pursuit of Sandman isn’t like anything thats been done before in a superhero game, and it’s as intuitive as it is chaotic. A frantic swing against a tide of tidal waves ends with a dash atop a capsizing boat. A pursuit through a darkened carnival has Noir spidey neutralizing thugs from atop a tilt-a-whirl. And a level starring Deadpool as the villain is set within the parameters of a game show. “Dimensions” reserves as much care for its 13 villains as it does its four Spider-Men, and the outpouring keeps the surprises coming all the way through to the conclusion (and, hilariously, past the final credit roll).

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NHL Slapshot
For: Wii
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

NHL 2K11
For: Wii
From: 2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)

NHL 11
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)

Another fall means another round of hockey games from the usual suspects, but the rules have changed slightly for 2010.

The biggest twist is “NHL Slapshot,” a brand-new, Wii-only game with arcade tendencies that harken back to EA’s early hockey days and a pack-in hockey stick peripheral that makes it a beast of its own creation.

The stick is nothing more than an enclosure for the Wii remote and nunchuck, and those who wish to play “Slapshot” without it can do so with two alternative control schemes. But the scheme designed around the stick — buttons play a role, but the act of swinging the stick allows players to shoot, check and deke — is surprisingly fun and, thanks to “Slapshot’s” arcade leanings, plenty precise enough to work.

For those who want “NHL 11” on the Wii, the downside to “Slapshot” is obvious: Even with the more traditional control schemes, this isn’t a sim on that level. But “Slapshot” also isn’t shallow: It has the whole league, some junior clubs, roster management, a season mode, a Peewee-to-Pro career mode, goalie controls, mini-games and a player creator. Don’t let the stick gimmick trick you into thinking “Slapshot” is a one-trick game. It isn’t, and if you want a game that plays like EA’s classic NHL games but has a modern feature set (online play excepted), this is not to be missed.

Wii owners who want something more serious have another exclusive option in “NHL 2K11,” but it’s hard to get excited about a game that’s pulling stand-in duty while 2K Sports retools the series for a 2011 reboot on all three consoles.

“2K11” isn’t without new material: The Road to the Cup mode — which pits players’ Mii avatars in a series of mini game challenges — benefits from clever games and a funny game show format, and improved MotionPlus implementation enhances the stickhandling controls.

Mostly, though, the game feels as tired as its stand-in status implies. It looks aged, it counters the stickhandling improvements with other control issues that return from last year, and online performance remains spotty. Player records return data from the 2008 season, and certain features from previous 360 and PS3 versions still aren’t here. Next year’s game might be worth this holdover, but right now, owners of those consoles are missing little.

It helps, of course, that those systems still have the best simulation in the business with EA’s “NHL” series, which, since its own reinvention a few years back, has toed the line between authenticity and accessibility better than any sports game — “Madden” included — ever has.

“NHL 11’s” big new feature — an Ultimate Hockey League mode that involves playing well in any mode and collecting cards that improve player attributes in lieu of competing with other players in a monthly online tournament — might be too big for those who wish to play the game on a remotely casual level. But obsessives who love both hockey and the tenets of role-playing games should adore the new challenge, which is insanely deep and wholly unlike anything a sports sim has attempted before.

For the rest of us, the changes are more minute but worth mention all the same. The Canadian Hockey League joins the game’s comprehensive roster of teams beyond the NHL, and the Be a Pro career mode now begins in those junior ranks before shifting to the NHL. The faceoff system gets a pinch of extra depth, sticks break, and tweaks in the physics quietly infiltrate the entirety of the action to improve everything from checks to dekes.

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Puzzle Agent
Reviewed for: iPad
Also available for: iPhone/iPod Touch, Windows PC, Macintosh
From: Telltale Games
iTunes Store Rating: 12+ (infrequent/mild horror/fear themes, infrequent/mild alcohol, tobacco, drug use or references to these, infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)

“Puzzle Agent” marks a pleasant change of pace for Telltale Games, which has done the vast majority of the heavy lifting responsible for the point-and-click adventure game revival. The overt humor of those other games is replaced here by a more low-key (but still funny) style that, along with the color pencil-and-charcoals artwork style, are based on cartoonist Graham Annable’s comics and animated shorts. More importantly, though, “Agent” isn’t really a point-and-click adventure in the traditional sense. Players still tap on parts of the environment to help Det. Nelson Tethers navigate around the sleepy town of Scoggins, Minn., but the real action takes place through a series of brainteasers that, when solved, provide clues toward unraveling the greater mystery at hand. “Agent’s” riddles run the gamut, from deductions of logic to visual challenges straight out of a book of brainteasers, and fans of Nintendo’s sterling “Professor Layton” games will appreciate a similar level of variety and craftsmanship (and, for those who need it, helpful hints) on display here. The amount of content here isn’t as bountiful as it is in those “Layton” games, but the friendly price reflects that, and it’s a small tax to pay for a game that adds a distinctive energy to a genre that’s never looked healthier or more inviting than it currently does.

Games 9/14/10: Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, Game Center

Batman: The Brave and the Bold: The Videogame
Reviewed for: Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: WayForward Technologies/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

No series of games has earned the “fun for all ages” tag quite like the Lego-branded games, which are fun and funny enough to engage good players but accommodating enough to allow even the most hopelessly hopeless to see them to completion. Thanks to local co-op support, they also allow two players of completely different disciplines to play together and have an identically great time doing so.

“Batman: The Brave and the Bold” is a classic sidescrolling beat ’em up that plays nothing like those Lego games — picture “Double Dragon” or the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” arcade game, but with “Batman” characters and gadgets. But by basing itself on the terrifically funny cartoon of the same name, and by adopting the same appetite for accommodation, it achieves that same all-inclusive vibe that makes those Lego games so endearing.

“Bold” mimics the cartoon by not only using the same art style and voice cast, but also by dividing its storyline into four mock episodes, all of which kick off with a boss fight against a secondary supervillain before launching into the cartoon’s title sequence and getting on with the episode.

All four episodes star Batman (who, in this instance, resembles Adam West’s genial character more than Christian Bale’s barking antihero), but each supplies him with a different sidekick and a fresh set of villains and environments. Players (playing alone with a surprisingly capable A.I. partner or with a friend via local co-op) can embody either hero, each of whom has his own gadgets on top of the standard brawling moves. Players also can summon one of 10 superheroes for brief assistance when things get hairy — a nice way to include “Bold’s” large cast of heroes while staying true to the show’s format.

Also true to the show: how surprisingly funny the whole thing is. If the recent “Batman” movies’ dreariness leaves you cold, “Bold” the cartoon is a personable and brilliantly funny antidote. The game is light on cutscenes, but it continually enhances the action with banter from the show’s voice talent, and the mix of reverence, self-depreciation and hilarious one-liners makes this one of the most pleasantly enjoyable games of the summer.

For some — young kids certainly, but maybe their gaming-challenged parents as well — part of that enjoyment will come from how generously “Bold,” like those Lego games, punishes failure. The game offers unlimited lives, and players who lose all health respawn right where they perished (or, in the event of falling into a pit of lava or something similar, as close to the spot as possible). The only penalty is a dent in collected coins, which go toward the purchase of those gadget upgrades, but the generosity means players don’t exactly need those upgrades to get through the game anyway.

While some won’t love that system, it’s infinitely preferable to making the game a cakewalk. “Bold” never approaches the punishing difficulty of some of its forebears, but it certainly doesn’t lack for action. Numerous enemies crowd the screen at once, and between the chaos they create and the moves at players’ disposal, there’s rarely a moment in “Bold” that’s dull. “Bold” uses certain Wii remote functions intelligently — Batman’s batarang certainly benefits from the Wii remote’s cursor capabilities — but for the most part, this is as classically fun as 2D brawling gets.

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Professor Layton and the Unwound Future
For: Nintendo DS
From: Level-5/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)

Three titles on, it’s easy to take the “Professor Layton” games for granted, and it’s temptingly easy to just recommend them out of hand to anyone who played and enjoyed the first two. If that’s you, here’s your “Professor Layton and the Unwound Future” review: Get it. It’s mostly more of the same — and that’s probably all you need to hear.

For the uninitiated, the “Layton” games are collections of genuinely clever riddles — picture rainy day brainteasers more than matching blocks and the usual stuff one associates with puzzle games — packaged inside a charming storyline starring the mystery-solving titular professor and his trusty apprentice Luke. By Nintendo DS standards, the storytelling is surprisingly polished, with hand-drawn animated cutscenes, generous amounts of voice acting and a narrative that ties into the puzzles startlingly well considering how many of them there are (165 and counting in this case) and how unique and meticulously crafted most of them are.

All of that still applies in “Future,” which finds Layton receiving a letter from London that apparently was written 10 years in the future by an older Luke. “Future” naturally weaves time travel into its storyline, and the device allows players not only to visit an environment that’s far busier than the first two games’ sleepy locales, but also see London in two dramatically different time periods and states.

Without spoiling specifics, “Future’s” story does have some warts — mostly with regard to making players trek back and forth between areas that aren’t exactly next door to one another. The plot also struggles occasionally to stay on a sane path while managing all those riddles and keeping a lid on the logistical can of worms that always threatens to spill out of any story based around time travel.

More than not, though, “Future” finds the best things about the series at their very best. The glimpse at future Luke gives fans more insight into our supporting hero, and the change of venue works in tandem with a greater concentration of cutscenes to flesh out Layton’s world in a way that will greatly satisfy fans and likely catch new players pleasantly off guard. There really is no other video game that tells stories quite the way these do — an accomplishment on any system, but especially impressive on the little DS.

Most important, though, the story ties into the riddle designs more closely than ever. Stating that “Future” has 165 riddles isn’t implying that it has 30 slight variations of the same five or so riddle designs. The variety here is enormous, and the only thing more impressive than the puzzles’ storyline ties is how consistently the game toes a perfect difficulty line. “Future’s” brainteasers are ingeniously tricky, but they’re always surmountable, and the systems the game has in place — not every puzzle must be solved to see the ending, collectable coins are redeemable toward hints, and there are no time limits for solving riddles — keeps the experience challenging but never frustrating.

Per series custom, Nintendo will sweeten “Future’s” already sweet $30 price by releasing additional puzzle packs for free each week via its in-game Wi-Fi Connection pipeline. The company hasn’t specified how long it’ll do this, but if the first two games’ post-release content is any gauge, that should equate to roughly 30 more puzzles for no additional cost.

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Game Center
For: iPhone/iPod Touch (available for iPad in November)
From: Apple
iTunes Store Rating: N/A (comes bundled with iOS 4.1)
Price: Free (games sold separately)

Apple has slowly warmed up to the iPhone and iPod Touch’s accidental transformations into portable gaming juggernauts, but Game Center makes the embrace official. Officially speaking, Game Center is to the iPhone and iPod Touch (and, come November, iPad) w
hat Xbox Live and Playstation Network are to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, respectively. As such, the features are what you’d expect, with accommodations for friend lists, leaderboards and achievements. In terms of execution, it succeeds more than not. Being able to quick-launch any supported game from inside the “Center” app is handy, and the leaderboard section — which employs a nifty percentile system in addition to standard ranking metrics, ranks players worldwide and amongst friends, and has daily, weekly and all-time leaderboards for both tiers — is terrific. The system for finding friends is clumsy, though, and there’s no way to chat or set up a multiplayer game from within the “Center” app. The biggest caveat, though? Before Game Center came along, OpenFeint already thrived on iOS by doing the same thing, and between that service’s admirable member support and its pending arrival on the Android platform, it arguably remains superior to Apple’s offering. Time will tell which service attracts more new games — OpenFeint presently has a gargantuan lead, but developers are sure to flock to a system that’s ingrained into the OS — and that, more than features or interface, likely will determine which platform leads the pack in the future. In the meantime, the competition can only benefit users of both services.