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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Games 8/16/11: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, Labyrinth, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: UTV Ignition
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $60

During its opening moments, “El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” sees fit to send you down a path where you not only must fail, but will face what initially resembles a “Game Over” screen.

It isn’t. Rather, it’s your first definitive clue that “Metatron,” while a product of familiar influences, has designs to take those influences down some wonderfully unique new avenues.

Fundamentally, “Metatron” is an action game in the same ilk as “God of War” or “Bayonetta” — fixed camera angles, an agile mix of melee and ranged combat, and a control scheme that’s overwhelmingly dependent on hitting the same attack button ad nauseam.

The difference here is that mashing those buttons won’t get you as far as will tapping them rhythmically. There’s no beat to follow, but keeping one in your head will result in attacks far more powerful than the stock manuevers.

“Metatron” puts the combat (and the need to employ a similarly measured defense) to great effect by giving you fewer enemies to fight but making each one formidable. You also only carry one weapon at a time, which means that if you want to switch from melee to ranged combat, you have to disarm an enemy with the weapon you want and take it from him. It’s a dangerous approach, but it’s far more satisfying than simply swapping weapons like you can do in every other game.

“Metatron’s” excellent treatment of stock enemies comes at no expense to its bosses. To the contrary, its treatment of the seven fallen angels whose reign of terror you must end — “Metatron” is a very creatively liberated interpretation of the Book of Enoch — is magnificent.

In contrast to the normal pattern of boss introductions, “Metatron” introduces you to all seven angels before sending you down swinging against one of them. From there, the fallen angels make frequent appearances in battles you can’t completely win, fostering rivalries that culminate in boss fights that are significantly more satisfying to win after all that buildup. “Metatron” unfurls its story at a pace that’s recognizable but unpredictable, and you’ll face off against some angels multiple times over multiple chapters before getting your chance to put them away for good.

The confidence and fluidity with which “Metatron” plays with convention is apparent everywhere else — in the soundtrack, the narration (how does a guardian angel talking to God on a smartphone sound?), and the brilliant way the game sometimes abandons the third dimension and illustrates important story points as a fantastically fun sidescrolling platformer.

“Metatron’s” 3D platforming sequences are no slouch, either, thanks in equal part to fluid controls and some ingeniously weird level designs that twist, elevate and sometimes form under your feet. Another gameplay shift — occurring exactly once in the middle of the story — is so starkly different and stupidly fun that even hinting at what it is would just be wrong.

But nowhere is “Metatron” more confident than with regard to its visual presentation, which emerges as the showpiece of a game that’s full of them. Each level flaunts a dramatically different style — white skies and dynamic violet landscapes here, a living sheet of canvas there, the most electric worlds Kevin Flynn never created in between.

The visual variety makes an unpredictable game that much more surprising, but it’s the insane skill with which “Metatron” brings them to life that makes it impossible for even screenshots to do the whole thing justice. Whether altering character states, swapping dimensions or continuously redrawing entire horizons as you race through them, “Metatron’s” animation drops jaws with a relentless brilliance that has very few peers.


For: Nintendo DS
From: Mentor Interactive/dtp young entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)
Price: $20

Mentor Interactive has talked a good game with its thinkSMART video game imprint, which purportedly bestows its blessing on games only when they achieve a satisfactory standard with regard to educational as well as entertainment value.

“Labyrinth” is among the latest crop of games (the others being “Scotland Yard,” also for the Nintendo DS, and “Crazy Machines” for the Wii) to bear the tag. And while it isn’t much at all to look at or listen to, it definitely passes muster as a puzzle game that doesn’t take its audience’s intelligence lightly.

Even describing “Labyrinth” without making it sound impossibly complicated is a bit tricky. Essentially, you and up to three others are pawns in a disconnected, maze-like labyrinth that’s littered with treasure. Each player is after a specific piece of treasure, and with each turn, you can add a maze piece to any edge of the labyrinth that “pushes” the opposite edge away and transforms the corridor arrangement of the entire labyrinth. The object is to clear a pathway to your treasure while preventing others from doing the same first. Each player has a handful of treasures to collect in order, and the first to nab them all wins the match.

(If that sounds like a complete mess, rest assured that it makes sense after you see it in action. The video game also is based on the board game of the same name, so if you’re familiar with the board game, you can just ignore the preceding attempted explanation.)

Were “Labyrinth” a solitary endeavor, it’d still be challenging. Having to create a path two feet in front of you while also modifying the labyrinth in a way that won’t stifle you three turns later isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s just impossible. There’s a balance between thinking three steps ahead and making a compromise for the immediate greater good, and you’ll occasionally curse yourself when you make a move that simply reveals a much better move after the labyrinth shifts.

But the challenge takes on another tenor entirely with an adversary sharing the maze with you. (“Labyrinth” supports up to four players via local single-card wireless play or by passing a single DS around, and it supplies up to three A.I. opponents when human competition isn’t available.)

As you might expect, the internal battle between planning and reacting grows that much more complicated when opponents interrupt your process with their own turns. Occasionally, you need to just abandon your own hunt and spend a turn shifting the board to block opponents or box them in. You don’t know which treasure they’re specifically hunting for, nor do they know what you’re after, so it helps also to pay attention to their moves, discern what they’re after, and keep them off the path. If you can do that while simultaneously paving your own way, more power to you.

The immense amount of moving intellectual parts gives “Labyrinth” a formidable level of depth that defies the budget price and appearance. The game’s music is hard on the ears, the graphics are extremely rudimentary, and the quest mode’s storyline isn’t exactly a hotbed of compelling characters or high production values.

But all of that stuff — even the quest mode as a whole — feels like secondary dressing.

In a pleasantly surprising role reversal, it’s actually the Quick Play mode that gives “Labyrinth” its longest legs. Each new game introduces a randomly-generated maze — essentially running the level count into the gazillions — and you can customize the intelligence and number of opponents to tailor to your ability and/or appetite for punishment. Outside of opponent intelligence, which lies at the mercy of your friends, all that holds true for multiplayer as well.


Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: FuelCell/Gagne International
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $15

Exploring the atmosphere of “Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet” is akin to wandering around a country without knowing the language, and that’s where its genius lies. “Planet” marries traditional 2D space shooting gameplay with the kind of non-linear exploration found in the likes of “Metroid,” populating regions you visit early on with areas you can only access once you return later with a gadget that can pave the way. “Planet” isn’t as sharp as “Metroid” about keeping the backtracking to a minimum, and purely as a space shooter, it’s more good than great. But the game redeems itself not only with the variety of gadgets you eventually collect, but in the clever way it challenges you to figure out the right tool for every job. “Planet” almost completely eschews language in favor of symbols: Your object scanner uses icons to hint at which gadgets are useful where, but you’ll need to flex some ingenuity to decipher what these gadgets do and how they apply to any given situation. Even in the first area, the game spells nothing out for you. The minimalist approach works in tandem with a vector-esque visual presentation to give “Planet” a fresh identity, and it joins forces with some great puzzle design to do the exploration theme proud. Should you occasionally crave something a little more frantic, the Lantern Run mode — a score-based, co-operative (four players, local or online) survival mode which puts your ship on the run from considerably more dangerous enemies — will prove a nice and punishing change of pace.

Games 5/3/11: MotorStorm: Apocalypse, Lego Battles: Ninjago, The Fancy Pants Adventures

MotorStorm: Apocalypse
For: Playstation 3
From: Evolution Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (crude humor, drug reference, language, suggestive themes, violence)

It seems a bit odd to commend an arcade racing game set amongst a crumbling city for its subtlety. But when the obscene amount of destruction taking place sneaks up and grows on you like it sometimes does here, that’s the only word that works.

Like its fellow “MotorStorm” games, “MotorStorm Apocalypse” is an off-road racing game with a taste for physics that is unquenchable. Dune buggies, rally cars, motorcycles, sports cars, monster trucks, ATVs and big rigs all share the same track, and the game just slightly exaggerates the properties you’d expect from each vehicle to create some seriously chaotic races.

The controlled chaos that ensues isn’t for everyone now any more than it has been since the first “MotorStorm” game debuted in 2006. But for those who can get into it, there isn’t anything else out there quite like it. “Apocalypse’s” vehicles are squirrelly and very prone to subtle but unmistakable overreactions to jumps, bumps, boosts and anything else that forces a sudden change in speed or orientation.

What makes these brief losses of control perfectly acceptable is the terrific way “Apocalypse” compensates with an equally generous allowance for recovery. Provided you understand the properties of the vehicle you’re driving — bikes are fast and super responsive but extremely fragile, for instance, while trucks cannot change course nearly as quickly but are durable enough to use smaller vehicles to couch a spinout — “Apocalypse’s” responsiveness overcomes its lust for weighty physics just enough to never leave you feeling totally out of control for very long. The line it toes between control and bedlam is razor-thin, but it toes it beautifully.

The “MotorStorm” method looks ever more impressive with “Apocalypse” changing the setting from jungles and beaches to cities and suburbs — and doing so at no expense to the series’ off-road roots.

A goofy (in a good way, complete with cheesy motion-comic presentation) story explains all, but the gist of “Apocalypse” is this: A major city is about to get pummeled by a rogue’s gallery of natural disasters, and while all but a few stubborn citizens flee for safety, a gang of daredevil racers decide to use the city — and the ensuing disaster — as grounds for a competition.

It may not be a smart idea, but it’s a visually spectacular one. Best of all, it regularly sneaks up on you. During the course of a three-lap race, an earthquake might hit early and turn cracking roads into buckling waves and ramps, which you can hit to catch air and land atop a building the moment after it topples. Tidal waves and tornados change the routes you can take from lap to lap, and during the game’s best moments, it transforms from a street racer into an off-road racer right before your eyes. “Apocalypse’s” weather and other effects look awesome, and the game as a whole animates beautifully, but its that gradual transformation over the course of a race that’s most impressive.

Structurally, “Apocalypse” pretty closely resembles its predecessors, complementing a satisfying single-player mode with splitscreen (four players, with the option to fill the remaining slots with A.I. racers) and online (16 players) multiplayer. A persistent milestone track awards you with unlockable perks, medals and new parts, which you can use to design and share customized vehicles with friends.

Unfortunately, the current Playstation Network outage means there’s no way to test the online functionality yet. If “Apocalypse’s” multiplayer fidelity is a make-or-break factor in your decision to purchase or pass, you’ll need to wait a little longer to make a choice.


Lego Battles: Ninjago
For: Nintendo DS
From: Hellbent Games/TT Games/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

Inevitably, somebody was going to wise up and design a real-time strategy game that would allow kids and absolute novices to cut their teeth on the genre without getting completely demoralized in the process.

Arguably, “Lego Battles: Ninjago” succeeds at doing exactly that. Just as arguably, though, it goes overboard in its attempt to do so.

Conceptually and structurally, “Ninjago” has its head in the right place. The Lego license, and TT Games’ impressive aptitude for mining it for comedic storytelling, gets the storytelling off to an entertaining start before passing the baton to the tutorial.

From here, “Ninjago” demonstrates a fundamental understanding of how to create a strategy game that feels like its bigger-budget contemporaries without overwhelming new players the way those games would. Controls work as you expect via the touch screen, and while the smaller screen sometimes makes it tricky to select specific units precisely, it works pretty well with practice. That holds true as well for the overlying interface, which lays out a host of management tools — a mini-map, resource tallies, build queues, objectives and more — in a way that’s easy to manage and rarely intrusive.

Unfortunately, where “Ninjago” goes a bit too far in the user-friendliness department is in the action itself, which rarely provides players with any serious adversity to overcome.

Too many missions force players to seek and attack rather than defend, which tends to limit the amount of creativity you can apply to your battle plan. That’d be unfortunate even if “Ninjago” provided you with fair fights to win, but there is almost never an instance in which your troops do not outnumber and overpower the enemy battalion by several degrees.

Short of malicious neglect of your troops, it’s awfully hard to lose a fight, and even kids who are completely green in the art of troop management should back their way into conquests with little trouble. Contemporary kids’ games are generally bad about underestimating the abilities of their audience, and while “Ninjago’s” lack of credit is no more offensive than that of other kids’ games, it’s harder for a slower-paced game like this to hide it.

The sum total is a game that’s impressive and underwhelming all at once. Ultimately, until a better challenger comes along, it’s still easy to recommend to parents with kids who want to graduate to “StarCraft” someday but have nothing to play with in the meantime. Even with the disappointing lack of difficulty, “Ninjago” succeeds in providing a pretty spot-on introduction to real-time strategy games, and between the story mode and a secondary skirmish mode that includes a handful of popular match types (tower defense, capture the flag, king of the hill and more), it’s definitely comprehensive.

Provided you have a friend with a second copy of the game, “Ninjago’s” two-player local wireless multiplayer is the best news of all. All the single-player skirmish matches make the move over to this area, and even the most unseasoned human opponent should provide a more unpredictable resistance than the A.I. does. It’s in this department where “Ninjago” most closely reaches its potential as a strategy game that doesn’t play down to its audience. Unfortunately, because you need one copy of the game per system, it’s also the one area players are most likely to never experience.


The Fancy Pants Adventures
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Borne Games/Over The Top Games/EA2D
Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $10

“The Fancy Pants Adventures” began life as a Flash game, but don’t dismiss it because of its origins. The Flash-esque graphics — flat and hand-drawn — are simple, but they perfectly complement some seriously fluid animation. That animation, in turn, allows “Adventures” to be a slightly different flavor of 2D platformer — one that depends heavily on wall jumps, slides and momentum as well as the usual running and jumping to fly through levels from bottom to top as well as left to right. All of this translates seamlessly from the keyboard to the gamepad, and “Adventures” considerably builds around the original game with a story mode and a large handful of mini-games and bonus levels that test players’ speed and ability to chain together acrobatic maneuvers. For the truly compulsive, it goes deeper than that: “Adventures” scatters collectibles and hidden challenge rooms all over each level, and maneuvering through the levels to find those rooms is just as fun as entering them and completing the challenge. You can blow through the story in a couple hours or so, but players bent on seeing and completing everything the game offers will be at it for many hours longer than that. If you need help, “Adventures” offers co-op support (four players, locally or online), but be warned: Like “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” the game includes the means and motivations for players to toss their good intentions aside and gleefully antagonize each other instead.

Games 4/19/11: Portal 2, Monster Tale, Section 8: Prejudice

Portal 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows, Macintosh
From: Valve Corporation
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, mild language)

Though a rousingly successful experiment, “Portal” was still an experiment — so much so that Valve snuck it into players’ hands as the wild card in a five-game suite that also included “Team Fortress 2” and “Half-Life 2” and its two expansions.

As such, while it was a wonderfully original game, it also felt like a project with nothing to lose — short, a little barren in the user-friendliness department, and flashing a hilariously, dryly insulting sense of humor that made the user-unfriendliness its soulmate.

Now as the headliner on its own box, “Portal 2” is obligated to step it up in some respects. The new game’s single-player component is a little more than twice as long as the entirety of the original game, and a second, separate co-op adventure (two players, splitscreen or online) makes this four times the game “Portal” was. The game’s objective and basic functions are more clearly explained, and the loose not-quite narrative of that first game funnels into a much fuller storyline — with some affectionate callbacks to its predecessor — this time around.

But at no point does “Portal 2” lose sight of the eccentricities that made “Portal” a surprising classic. That same sense of humor is back, and a slight expansion of the cast (no spoilers) makes it even funnier this time around. When the game is forced to change its ways — the extra dose of user-friendliness, for instance — it fully acknowledges the obligation with some of the funniest instances of overcompensation you’ll ever experience in a video game.

The amusing storytelling helps move along an early stretch that, for “Portal” graduates, will play a little slow while it helps the uninitiated get comfortable.

It’s a necessary evil, because if you’ve never played “Portal,” then you’ve never played anything like this. “Portal 2” looks and controls like a first person shooter, and the right and left triggers eventually will be used for firing. But instead of shooting enemies, you’re firing at walls to create portals. Your two portal guns can create one active portal per gun at a time, and walking into one portal takes you out the other. The goal is to use these portals to manipulate the scenery and make your way to an exit that would otherwise be unreachable.

If that sounds mind-bending, wait until you see it. “Portal 2’s” early challenges are simple and involve only one or two steps to get from A to B. But as time passes and the areas expand, you’ll have to create chains of events, take uncomfortable leaps of semi-faith, manipulate objects’ physical properties, and hone your geometry and timing skills — sometimes simultaneously. The riddles are beautifully designed so as never to be unreasonably arcane, but they can most certainly be devious. Gradually overcoming a level that initially seemed impossible is a wonderfully rewarding challenge that no other first-person game can remotely match.

That holds exponentially true for the co-op campaign, which tells a new story, introduces two terrific new characters (Atlas and P-body, who are the most adorably likable robots this side of Wall-E), and takes the deviousness to a new plane by forcing players to work together with four portals instead of two.

Once again, the difficulty ramps up perfectly. Early challenges have you operating separate halves of the same area to eventually reach the goal together. But once things open up, you’ll need to master all the things described earlier while trading steps with your partner and sometimes harmonizing your moves to make everything click. Prepare to communicate, and prepare to celebrate if you take the campaign down together.


Monster Tale
For: Nintendo DS
From: DreamRift/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Arguably no game validated the Nintendo DS’ dual screens more perfectly than “Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure,” which put entirely different genres on each screen — platforming on top, a “Bejeweled”-style puzzle game on the bottom — and meshed them together for one brilliantly cohesive good time.

“Monster Tale” comes courtesy of the some of the same developers who made “Hatsworth.” So while it should be a surprise that we have two even more ambitious genres working in similarly perfect harmony, it really isn’t.

This time, the top screen is home to an open-ended platformer in the vein of “Metroid” or “Castlevania.” Ellie (that’s you) begins her adventure with little more than the ability to run, jump and fire a puny blaster. You’re free to maneuver through the game world in whatever direction you want, but certain areas are inaccessible to Ellie until she finds and acquires the abilities — rolling, a melee attack, high-jumping, a better blaster — that allow her to reach them.

Like the games that influenced it, “Tale” intelligently spreads the rewards around, allowing you to acquire new abilities and access new areas at a steady pace that feels just right. Exploring the world is great fun, too: “Tale’s” controls are as polished and responsive here as “Hatworth’s” were, and the rate at which you meet new enemies, boss characters and obstacles keeps things fresh even when you need to backtrack through areas you’ve already visited. The game’s visual design is a treat as well, with vibrant colors and imaginative level and enemy designs that distinguish themselves nicely from area to area.

Where “Tale” transforms from homage to a beast of its own creation is with the introduction of Chomp, an enigmatic little monster who follows Ellie around like a loyal puppy after she rescues him very early in the game.

You don’t control Chomp directly, but in the virtual pet simulator that occupies “Tale’s” bottom screen, you are charged with keeping him healthy, educated and dangerous to all who threaten your progress.

If the words “virtual pet simulator” make you cringe, fear not, because there isn’t much work involved in keeping Chomp healthy. A button press brings him into Ellie’s world in the top screen, where he will automatically fight nearby enemies without your having to do anything, and another button press sends him back to his sanctuary, where he can heal and use books and food you find in battle to get stronger and smarter. A few other items — a catapult and a soccer ball, among other amusing choices — will also drop into the sanctuary, and Chomp can use them from the bottom screen to temporarily wreak havoc on the top screen.

All the learning and growing makes Chomp a better fighter, but it also allows him to learn new abilities and even assume whole new forms whose specialized abilities give Ellie access to areas she wouldn’t be able to reach alone.

“Tale” doesn’t hold back, either: Chomp has a staggering 30 forms waiting to be discovered, and when you pile those atop all those other abilities and lay that sum atop a game that ramps up the challenge at a similarly ideal pace, the surprises never stop filing in.


Section 8: Prejudice
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows
From: TimeGate Studios
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $15

Were “Section 8: Prejudice” a full-priced first-person shooter, it’d be recommendable as a flawed but endearing breath of fresh
air. At $15, though, it’s simply a no-brainer. From the visual presentation (good, but a couple years behind its big-budget counterparts) to the enemy A.I. (also good, but occasionally prone to significant lapses in judgment), “Prejudice’s” campaign doesn’t completely mask its smaller budget. At the same time, though, its warzones are wider and higher than the constrictive corridors that dominate most shooters, and it gives you the necessary tools — jet packs, mechs, vehicles that are wildly fun to operate — to take advantage of all that space. “Prejudice’s” campaign is comparable in length to a $60 shooter, and its 32-player competitive multiplayer includes unlockable perks, bot support and even some light real-time strategy mechanics. It also takes a page from “Killzone’s” book by dynamically mixing multiple team-based objectives into a single match. (Another nice strategic touch: Because you “spawn” by dropping in from the sky, you can pick exactly where you want to land each time you regenerate.) “Prejudice” also includes four-player co-op via the Swarm mode, in which waves of enemies descend on your foursome until you’re inevitably overrun. Warts or not, everything about “Prejudice” operates with a great mix of competence and chaos, and the total package is a total steal at this price.

Games 1/11/11: LittleBigPlanet 2, TouchMaster: Connect, ilomilo

LittleBigPlanet 2
For: Playstation 3
From: Media Molecule/Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

It’s may be thanks to a technicality, but it’s still true: “LittleBigPlanet 2” is the first game in history to launch with 3.5 million levels ready to play out of the gate.

And besides, it’s no small technicality. The first “LittleBigPlanet” broke considerable ground by making it easy for players to create full-featured 2D platforming levels using nothing but a Playstation controller, and players responded by designing lavishly personalized worlds and using the game’s immense flexibility and boundless physics engine to mimic genres the game was never even designed to emulate.

Those levels all carry over to “LBP2,” which delivers on Media Molecule’s promise to nurture the “LittleBigPlanet” universe as a self-standing platform. The lessons learned and implemented during the first game’s lifespan — interface streamlining, community feedback, tools for finding the best of those millions of levels — carry over as well.

As in the original, “LBP2’s” core content includes a traditional 2D sidescrolling adventure that, in addition to continuing the story of series star Sackboy, provides a comprehensive overview of the game’s tone, its physics engine and what’s possible on the creation side of things.

If you didn’t like the way Sackboy controlled in the original “LBP,” the return of these controls — floaty jumping, excessive slipperiness when standing on unstable ground — is likely the worst news about “LBP2,” which probably had no choice but to leave the physics alone in order to maintain full backward compatibility.

But flags of progress fly just about everywhere else. In addition to running, jumping and grabbing, Sackboy now can lift, throw, fire projectiles, swing around with a grappling hook and commandeer a more diverse array of vehicles (some living). A storyline twist also introduces us to the Sackbots, which creators can configure to give their levels programmable artificial intelligence.

But the unarguable (and literal) game-changer is “LBP2’s” now-ingrained ability to create gaming experiences — twin-stick shooters, puzzle games, a makeshift game of basketball — that have nothing to do with 2D platforming.

“LBP2’s” game creation engine has benefitted immensely from two years of experience and polish, emerging as a significantly more streamlined interface that better uses the controller without sacrificing any of the tool’s power.

To the contrary, the introduction of the Controllinator — which allows creators to map objects and functions to controller buttons in whatever configuration they please — takes the original “LBP’s” high ceiling and kicks it over the moon. Being able to map anything to anything else means creators can design foundations for just about any type of game genre, and the process of doing so is remarkably simple.

“LBP2” provides would-be creators with roughly an hour’s worth of surprisingly entertaining tutorials, and while it’s impossible to demonstrate on paper how versatile and user-friendly these tools are, a little hands-on time in conjunction with the tutorials does wonders. Testers were able to design everything from racing games to first-person shooters during “LBP2’s” brief beta period, and it’ll be exciting to see what emerges with the full toolset in hand and no time limit in place. The game’s persistent co-op (four players, locally or online) now applies to the creation tool as well, so players can collaborate on a masterpiece if they can manage to work through their creative differences.

And if you’re hopelessly intimidated or just don’t care about creating your own games? Those 3.5 million (and counting) levels remain yours to download and play for free. Enjoy.


TouchMaster: Connect
For: Nintendo DS
From: DoubleTap Games/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

The strangely successful “TouchMaster” series lives in its own contradictory little universe, capably emulating those cheap touchscreen arcades you see in bars and successfully porting the experience of playing them to a system that’s as responsible as any for killing most of the novelty those machines once had.

“TouchMaster: Connect” (which, for those scoring at home, is the fourth “TouchMaster” game to surface in three and a half years) takes the contradiction even further with its sideways approach to online bragging rights. This time, though, the blame for what results lies as much with the system’s limitations as it does with the game.

Similar to previous “TouchMaster” games, “Connect’s” 20 mini-games mark a prioritization of quantity over quality. The games fall into four categories — strategy, action, puzzle and card — and generally give players a single objective to fulfill. Tricky Fish, for instance, asks players to “juggle” a fish by swiping upward with the stylus, while Quik Match is a simple Mahjong clone with numbers instead of symbols.

“Connect” doesn’t completely skimp on presentation. Each game has a high score table and a lengthy roster of achievements to unlock. Nine of them support two-player wireless multiplayer with one game card. And “Connect’s” attempts to fulfill the “Connect” part of its name — more on that momentarily — are interesting, if not terribly successful.

But the chief problem with “Connect” is the same problem the previous three “TouchMaster” games had: The games themselves feel unmistakably cheap. The touchscreen controls are stiff, the graphics look like relics from the CD-ROM era, and when “Connect” tries to emulate a game that’s already prospered on the DS — Coco Loco, a “Bejeweled” clone, for example — the results are unflatteringly stiff and clunky by comparison. Authenticity of emulation is an admirable goal, but the “TouchMaster” games would be a whole lot more fun if they left that behind and created facsimiles that felt like they were developed for the DS instead of some cheap arcade box.

“Connect” gets its surname from its headlining new feature, which allows players to link to their Facebook and Twitter accounts and post their accomplishments to each respective service. Superficially, the idea makes sense, but in practice, all it really feels like is advertising. At least when friends annoy you about their Facebook game pursuits, you can jump in and play them if you feel so inclined. “Connect,” by contrast, feels like a one-way street, and while the social networking name-dropping is very 2011, the online leaderboards that became cool in 2002 remain a superior system in this arena.

Fortunately, “Connect” has those as well. Unfortunately, the Nintendo DS has no way to stay persistently connected to the Internet. So while you can compare your scores with others around the world, you have to manually connect to the Internet and submit your score whenever you want to see updated leaderboards in a separate menu. “Connect” only downloads leaderboards from that one game, too, so if you want all 20 leaderboards, get ready to navigate a lot of menus. Considering the other failings of the setup — there’s no support for friends lists, much less a friends-only leaderboard, nor is there any way to challenge other players from within the game — the hassle just isn’t worth it.


For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: SouthEnd Interactive/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

“ilomilo” didn’t need to be charming to an almost illegal degree in order to be a good game, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The object of each of “ilomilo’s” 49 levels is to reunite best friends ilo and milo, who have been separated by a labyrinth constructed entirely of plush cubes. Reuniting them involves teamwork, with players controlling both characters either alternately by themselves or simultaneously with a friend via local co-op. But things really get interesting when the game introduces advanced tactics — from creating bridges and elevators out of portable cubes to rotating the entire level and defying gravity — and produces level designs that ask players to use the tricks in tandem in order to reunite the friends and find the other secrets hidden within. On the difficulty scale, “ilomilo” hits the sweet spot: The harder levels are cerebrally exhausting, but the game lets you take as much time as you want to figure them out, penalizing slow players only on the completely ignorable Xbox Live leaderboards. The relaxed pace provides a perfect complement to all that aforementioned charm. “ilomilo’s” graphical style — everything, from characters to world, looks like a living plush toy — is arrestingly beautiful, and the game’s personality and sense of humor strike a perfect balance between lovably endearing and slyly clever.

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.


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.


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.

Games 9/7/10: Disney Guilty Party, Galactic Taz Ball, Dead Rising 2: Case Zero

Disney Guilty Party
For: Wii
From: Wideload Games/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

If you want to know what it’s like to play “Disney Guilty Party” by yourself, set up a game of “Clue” and invite no one to play with you. You might find a way to have fun for a little while, and those with active imaginations could certainly dream up a scenario in which they’re legitmately competing against themselves.

But playing “Party” without the party simply doesn’t compare to playing with up to three others, and because there’s no online multiplayer component to appease those who lack the luxury of live company, the game is nearly impossible to recommend to those who’d only play alone.

That, however, is not a slight to “Party,” which clearly was designed with social play in mind and thrives beautifully when played that way. Developer Wideload Games takes a good enough collection of roughly 50 minigames and bakes it into a clue-gathering chase that, in addition to tweaking the “Clue” formula just enough to freshen it up without rendering it unrecognizable, has players competing against the unidentified culprit as well as each other.

“Party” sets itself up like a game of “Clue” by dropping players in a cartoony mansion, establishing a makeshift storyline for sake of context, and shrouding the culprit behind a handful of clues pertaining to his or her physical characteristics. Players collect clues by winning those minigames, which are simple but brisk in a manner that will remind “WarioWare” fans of that series, and from there it’s a matter of deducing the innocent and correctly nabbing the perp before he or she escapes.

“Party” does include a story mode that, in addition to establishing a larger context around these cases, lets players fly solo and play strictly to decipher the clues. But while there’ s still some satisfaction to solving the cases, it’s dampened — and not simply because you’ll play the minigames by yourself and win them by default. The story mode allows up to three other players to join in cooperatively and work together, which is certainly more fun, but even this undermines too much of what makes “Party” great when cooperation becomes competition.

“Party’s” competitive multiplayer takes the characters and scenarios from the story mode and randomly shuffles enough factors that players essentially get a new case almost every time they play. The minigames actually matter in this mode, because the winner gets ownership of the clue at stake and, thanks to a trick that’s both necessary and ingenious, can stealthily use the Wii remote to turn the clue into a lie when other players see it on the screen. Players can perpetuate additional bluffs in their notebook, turning “Party” into a game of detective poker that brilliantly allows players to deceive one another while still sharing the same screen.

“Party” does what it does quite well, with mysteries that are the right mix of quick, challenging and accessible and with minigames that change the pace of the action without ever being the focus of that action. The character designs are terrific, and the game handles deception spotlessly by giving players the tools to use it and letting them take it from there. Tallied up, it’s an enviably good party game for a system that’s overloaded with wannabes. Give it a look if you have friends to play with, and find some friends to play with if you don’t.


Galactic Taz Ball
For: Nintendo DS
From: WayForward Technologies/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

One player’s idea of innovation is another player’s obnoxious gimmicky solution to a problem that never existed, and a few screenshots from the seemingly innocuous “Galactic Taz Ball” may as well accompany the Wikipedia entry that details this debate.

“Ball’s” storyline is easy enough to explain — Marvin the Martian and his fleet have invaded Earth, and Taz the Tasmanian Devil takes it into his own paws to stop him — and if the game had come out 10 years ago, the gameplay probably wouldn’t need any kind of explanation at all. Players control Taz in a game that’s 80 percent overhead platformer and 20 percent sidescrolling platformer, and each of the game’s 25 levels and accompanying boss fights incorporate both perspectives intermittently.

But instead of moving Taz using the directional pad in the overhead levels, players use a virtual trackball on the DS’ bottom screen to push him around. Taz responds with the same momentum a cursor would when using a PC trackball, and repeatedly spinning the trackball causes him to transform into his tornado form, which sends him careering around chaotically and allows him to wreak havoc on enemies and obstacles that otherwise would impede progress. (The only function the buttons provide goes toward a ground pound attack, which handily doubles as a means to bring Taz’s momentum to a standstill.)

Mastering the mannerisms of the virtual trackball takes practice, particularly because “Ball’s” tutorial doesn’t extensively explain those mannerisms. But once it becomes second nature, it’s a blast. “Ball’s” overworld levels are full of moving platforms and narrow terrain, and while controlling Taz is deliberately more chaotic with the trackball than it would be with buttons, the trackball is plenty responsive enough to maintain a controlled chaos instead of something that feels completely unwieldy and cheap. The trackball also is nice and life-sized, comprising the majority of the bottom screen (and, consequently, validating “Ball’s” choice of this platform over other touchscreen-enabled devices).

The sidescrolling stuff is a bit stranger. As the story somewhat explains, Taz cedes all control to a series of conveyor belts, cannons, rotating platforms and other gadgets that players activate and deactivate to guide him from entrance to exit. The levels play out like puzzles, and players who want to find the hidden collectables needed to unlock “Ball’s” secret content will have to lead Taz down alternate routes that are more difficult to traverse than the basic routes. (“Ball” also peppers the overhead levels with a few out-of-way collectables, and between making it fun to find these collectables and further rewarding players who complete the overhead levels under a par time, there significantly more replay value than the 25-level count originally implies.)

But while the sidescrolling portions are a fun challenge for those who aspire to find those hidden routes, they also make a case for sticking with old control conventions when old conventions would suffice. Tapping the gadgets to activate them makes sense, but players also must “swipe” Taz to turn him around and tap him to make him march forward. “Ball” occasionally confuses fast swipes for taps, which can cause any number of unwanted factors to sabotage progress, and there’s no good reason for this to happen while so many buttons sit on the bench.


Dead Rising 2: Case Zero
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Marketplace
From: Blue Castle Games/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language, sexual themes, use of alcohol)
Price: $5

Capcom has positioned “Dead Rising 2: Case Zero” as a piece of purchasable marketing that doubles as a prequel to the upcoming “Dead Rising 2.” But for those who got excited about the original “Dead Rising” but hated how Capcom laid it out back in 2006, “Zero” might accidentally serve as a cheap reminder not to make the same mistake twice. Like “Rising,” “Zero” is a third person zombie-slaying simulator,
and while the scope here isn’t as large as it was then or will be in “DR2” proper, the game still lets players massacre schools of zombies with just about any object not bolted to the ground in a pretty spacious open world. “Zero” uses assets from the upcoming game, and in addition to introducing players to main character Chuck in a short storyline set three years prior, it also introduces players to Chuck’s ability to combine two weapons into a third, thoroughly ridiculous weapon. But “Zero” also reintroduces players to “Rising’s” unique structure, which places hard time limits on every objective in the game and stacks them in a way that forces players to forgo certain missions in order to complete others (and essentially replay the game, with all accumulated experience points carrying over, numerous times to complete every objective). The system was as polarizing as it was original, and while those who loved it will adore Capcom’s sticking to its guns four years later, it’s might make “DR2” a non-starter for those who didn’t.

Games 7/13/10: Dragon Quest IX, Naughty Bear, Blacklight: Tango Down

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
For: Nintendo DS
From: Square-Enix/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol reference, animated blood, comic mischief, fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes, mild language)

If you have a soft spot for the founding fathers of turn-based role-playing games but loathed everything “Final Fantasy XIII” stood for when it released in March, there could scarcely be a more different game than “Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies,” which takes a few superficially backward steps but cherishes the things that, in 2010 just as in 1986, ultimately matter most.

The contrasts are immediate. “FFXIII” is eye candy overload, but an arguably toxic appetite for storytelling overloads the game with cutscenes over which players have no effect. “Skies,” meanwhile, takes a visual dive from its predecessor by migrating from the Playstation 2 to the Nintendo DS, and beyond its introduction, the storyline heads down a path that’s practically boilerplate by genre standards.

But that open-ended sparseness allows “Skies” to give players more control from the start than “FFXIII” arguably provides in its lifetime.

“Skies” lets players not only name the characters in their party, but also design them using a surprisingly thorough character editor. The story that follows may be one that RPGs have been telling since their inception, but it stars whomever players want it to star. And while cutscenes that use the DS’ real-time 3D capabilities aren’t in the same league as “FFXIII’s” pre-rendered scenes, they’re innumerably more personalized and, by extension, far more rewarding over the game’s very long haul.

The customization bent also complements “Skies’s” most impressive innovation: co-op play. Up to four players can team up wirelessly (local only, and everyone needs a copy of the game), and the game is surprisingly liberal with regard to what happens from there. Players can adventure separately in the same world, summon one another for immediate help in battle, and basically treat the experience like a small-scale MMO. “Skies” allows players to join and part as they please, regardless of experience levels and in-game progress, and it doesn’t force anyone to choose between leaning on the feature or completely missing out on its benefits.

That’s about the only way it can work, because for most, the 25 (main quest) to 100-plus (everything) hours needed to turn “Skies” inside out would be almost impossible to invest under inflexible conditions. In this respect, the decision to take the game down the portable route looks like genius. A considerable time investment is needed before everything the game offers is freely available, but “Skies'” world opens up relatively quickly, and it’s exponentially more freely explorable than “FFXIII’s” depressing straight line. Being able to continually chip away at it, regardless of time investment or other conditions, more than compensates for whatever fidelity the graphics would have gained on flashier hardware.

With that said, if you don’t love “Dragon Quest” already, “Skies” won’t be the gust of wind that turns that boat around. Impressively large and intelligently innovative though it may be, this ultimately is the same general pattern of turned-based battling gameplay and storytelling that has subsisted for nearly 25 years. Like its predecessors, “Skies” excels at doing those things by balancing challenge, elegance and depth in ways few turned-based RPGs can, but not so much that it changes the game for anyone who doesn’t love it already.


Naughty Bear
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Artificial Mind & Movement/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

Every year, a few games surface that belie the prerequisite that a game must be good in order to be any fun.

This year, the leader of that pack has to be “Naughty Bear,” a thoroughly bizarre, poorly-coded and very arguably reprehensible game that might, because of how easy it is to exploit as well as how strange it is in the first place, be something you might wish to see anyway.

“Bear” stars players as the titular Naughty Bear, who, after getting ostracized by the other bears in his village, decides to turn his hurt feelings into a murderous rampage. The bears look and sound like your prototypical stuffed bears, and the village in which they live is similarly saccharine. The only difference is that players can use a range of weaponry and nearby objects — from toilets to grills — to turn the village into a crime scene. The truly skilled can even traumatize the other bears into turning on themselves.

If it sounds kind of terrible, it’s because it is. Killing isn’t exactly a foreign concept in games, but you’ll need some kind of stone heart to wreak havoc on a sweet-sounding stuffed bear and emerge feeling terrible or at least somewhat disturbed. This, obviously, is what “Bear” is going after by blending cuteness and murder to this degree, but it might be a little too good at it to make this playable beyond the morbid curiosity stage.

What “Bear” isn’t good at is most everything else. The game’s missions are variations of the same few things over and over, and the chapters continually take place in the same tiny environments. The camera is jerky to a motion sickness-inducing degree, the animation and controls lack polish, and the lack of mid-mission checkpoints — even though every mission is divided into very clear parts — makes some of the levels with stricter objectives a needless pain (especially when the camera causes a mission failure).

Last but not least, the game crashes in myriad ways — sometimes hanging on a load screen, sometimes freezing completely, and occasionally just suspending all character animation while parts of the game keep chugging away in some bizarre fashion or another.

On the other hand, some of “Bear’s” shortcomings — chiefly, its sorry excuse for A.I. and stealth — accidentally make the game more fun than it might otherwise have been.

For whatever reason, hiding in shallow patches of grass and bushes makes Naughty Bear completely invisible to the other bears. It doesn’t matter if he’s three inches away from two bears and hidden by a single leaf. It doesn’t matter if he just hit a bear in the face, took one step sideways and is screaming “boo” from the bushes. They can’t see him, and players are free to exploit this absurd reality to terrorize the other bears in ways a competent game wouldn’t allow. It basically allows players who are awful at stealth games to see why players who are good at them love them so much.

But once these novelties wear off, nothing remains but an empty game that plays poorly and makes players feel worse. That makes “Bear” a great rental, if only to satisfy any lingering curiosity about one of the year’s strangest games before realizing that any investment beyond a few bucks and a few hours is money and time poorly spent.


Blacklight: Tango Down
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Also available for: Windows PC, Playstation 3 via Playstation Network (later this summer)
From: Zombie Studios/Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, violence)
Price: $15

Were “Blacklight: Tango Down” a full-priced first-person shooter, its combination of generic atmosphere and tacked-on single-player offerings would make it almost superlatively insignificant. At $15, though, it’s another story. “Blacklight” takes place in environments that look like
areas you’ve seen before, and it’s populated by soldiers engaging in battle for reasons that aren’t necessarily important. The single-player (or, with three friends, online co-op) component explains little, but it’s for the best, because the entirely unrefined A.I. — enemies mindlessly spray bullets like walking turrets — makes it entirely skippable anyway. “Blacklight’s” real purpose is as a multiplayer shooter (16 players), and like last summer’s “Battlefield 1943,” it provides a healthy return on investment without reinventing anything. All the usual multiplayer modes are here, the map count is surprisingly high at 12, and “Blacklight” looks, controls and sounds like a $60 game in a $15 game’s body. Better still, it provides a reason to keep coming back, flaunting an experience system that rewards players a massive unlockable cache of weapons, accessories and character improvements. The climb to the top of the rewards pile is steep, and an unimpressive matchmaking system makes it tough on new players who have to overcome experienced players with better gear, but the stream of perks is so constant that it’s easy to find the motivation to beat those odds. (For those who’d rather just play with friends, no worries: Private match support also is available.)

Games 7/6/10: Crackdown 2, Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4, Puzzle Quest 2

Crackdown 2
For: Xbox 360
From: Ruffian Games/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)

Conventional wisdom would suggest that while “Crackdown’s” combination of open-world freedom and superhuman powers made it a deserving cult sensation in 2007, enough has happened since for more of the same to not be enough. “Infamous” and “Prototype” trotted out similar ideas with deeper storylines, “Assassin’s Creed” sped up rooftop bounding with its parkour controls, “Just Cause 2” blew the roof off the limits of verticality, and “Red Faction: Guerrilla” raised the environmental destruction bar considerably.

But in all that time, and with respect to all those games, none of them really went head-on with the little things that made “Crackdown” so uniquely awesome. “Crackdown 2” is more of the same with sprinkles on top, but it so perfectly nails everything the first game — and only that game — did right.

It’d better, too, because a lot of it might as well be the first game. “Crackdown’s” nearly non-existent storyline has been upgraded to threadbare here, but the objective — kill the evildoers — is identical. The last game’s ending carries over, and the mutants that began populating Pacific City in “Crackdown” are now overflowing the geographically-altered city during “Crackdown 2’s” nighttime hours. A single, monstrous gang patrols the streets during the day, and players once again take orders from a bloodthirsty and completely hilarious narrator at The Agency. (Yes, it’s called The Agency. Threadbare, see.)

Just as they did last time, players gradually increase their abilities — from jumping distance to ammo expertise to driving acumen — by utilizing those abilities in the game, and players who max out those abilities will outrun cars, jump (or, new to the sequel, glide via a wingsuit) clean over buildings, equip grenades capable of detonating block-wide chain reactions and gain access to some amazing modes of transportation.

In other words, everything practically is as it was three years ago. The enemy A.I. hasn’t evolved, with the gangs still fighting like meatheads and the freaks just plowing forward in extreme numbers. The upgrade system feels mostly the same. The optional pursuit of collectable orbs (500 perched atop structures, 300 hidden away, and a few that actually run away or only activate during co-op sessions) feels mostly the same. Even the highly imperfect targeting system from “Crackdown” returns with no significant improvements made.

But while the amazing level of disinterest Ruffian Games shows in evolving the “Crackdown” formula almost certainly should reflect poorly on “Crackdown 2,” a typical game session often delivers more than enough arguments in favor of not breaking what no other game since has outdone. “Crackdown 2’s” control schemes for running, jumping and driving feel magnificently responsive, and while the weapon targeting definitely could be better, the system in place offers enough upside to justify its presence. The game offers tremendous freedom almost from the start, and the sum total of all the firepower, horsepower, geography and Agency-given talent adds up to an experience that’s shallow but explosively, tremendously fun.

Like its predecessor, “Crackdown 2” allows players to carry on with or without other players in their world, and the customizable four-player dynamic co-op emphatically improves on “Crackdown’s” barebones two-player support. “Crackdown 2” also offers 16-player competitive multiplayer for maximum chaos, but while it’s fun in small does, the element of open-world teamwork and anything-goes ingenuity falls away when everyone’s sole focus is on killing everyone else.


Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii
Also available for: Sony PSP, Nintendo DS and Windows PC
From: TT Games/Warner Bros. Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor)

Anyone who was charmed by 2005’s “Lego Star Wars” and gradually less impressed with the franchise’s takes on Indiana Jones and Batman will likely be downright annoyed to discover “Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4” continues the Lego games’ unfortunate tradition of not evolving in ways they really, really should.

But this wouldn’t really be a problem if “Potter” didn’t continue the series’ other tradition of continually turning out surprises within the constraints of its formula. It does — perhaps to a greater degree than any game since that “Star Wars” game — and so we’re faced yet again with taking the bad in order to take the good as well.

As the name implies, “Potter” covers the first four years of Harry’s seven-year saga, and you either don’t want the plot details spoiled for you or already know them like you know your own last name. As per series tradition, the game reenacts each year’s biggest moments using pantomiming Lego characters and recreating the scenes with a mix of authenticity and genuinely amusing creative license.

But “Potter” also covers a surprising number of lesser moments in each chapter, and the game allows players to take control of practically everyone — Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Dobby, even Scabbers the rat, among more than 150 others — in addition to Harry, Ron and Hermione. The amount of learnable spells is impressively high, and by using two cavernous hub levels (Diagon Alley/Hogsmeade and Hogwarts) instead of one, there’s a ton of fan service to discover off the stories’ main roads.

Per usual, passing a story level opens it up to free play, allowing players even more freedom in terms of the “Potter” characters they wish to control. Between all the possibilities that allows and the aforementioned main and optional content, “Potter” is a massive playground that offers 20-plus hours’ worth of stuff to do.

Unfortunately, those hours are also chock full of the same annoyances that have persisted since “Star Wars.” For a game that features fixed camera angles and lots of running and jumping, the jumping controls are still too squirrelly. Ditto for the targeting system, which occasionally makes casting certain spells with precision a case of trial and error if too many possible targets are clustered together.

The control imperfections are harder to understand because, for the most part and regardless of story scenario or characters used, “Potter” generally plays the same way. Some nice broom controls and the occasional vehicular objective are both welcome, but neither makes enough of an impact to give the game a strong sense of variety. Similarly, while “Potter” is loaded with cause-and-effect puzzles, most of them are too straightforward to count as puzzles so much as steps to take in order to make X happen and clear the path to get to Y.

Finally, while “Potter” supports two-player local co-op play, TT Games inexplicably continues to omit online co-op play. Sharing a couch with the other player is the best way to play, yes, but how hard can it be at this point to throw a bone to players who may not have the luxury of a willing second player nearby?


Puzzle Quest 2
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Infinite Interactive/D3Publisher of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $15

After 2007’s “Puzzle Quest” surprised just about everybody by taking “Bejeweled” and using it as a means of battle in a story-driven role-playing game, a handful
of weird offshoots tried and mostly failed to take the idea to new avenues. So it’s no surprise to finally see “Puzzle Quest 2,” which brings the idea back to its roots and simply gets to tweaking from there. The net worth of those tweaks will certainly vary to players of different disciplines. The story is thin to the point of being boilerplate, and instead of capturing cities and managing armies, players rarely do more than move from fight to fight. But while “PQ2’s” outer shell feels dumbed down, the battles themselves are improved. Standard fights feel considerably more balanced than “PQ1’s” fights, which frequently approached untenably difficult levels, and the new item system aids an increase in gem types to let players win with skilled, creative play instead of waiting for the same old gems to appear. “PQ2” mixes in the occasional mini-game for variety’s sake, but the fight system evolves enough to carry the surprisingly lengthy single-player campaign. Naturally, players who want some human competition can find it via the game’s two-player local and online (360 only) multiplayer, which function exactly as one hopes and expects they would.

Games 6/1/10: ModNation Racers, Red Dead Redemption, Looksley's Line Up

ModNation Racers
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: PSP
From: San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

“ModNation Racers” successfully reinvigorates the cobwebbed kart racing genre by allowing players to design and share fully customized drivers, karts and tracks with enormous ease and boundless creative license, and the interfaces through which it does this are brilliantly conceived.

How remarkable, then, that even without any of those tools, this still would signify a badly-needed leap forward.

Credit for that goes to “MNR’s” actual racing action, which, even against A.I. opponents, is often as exhilarating as its creation and community tools. The sense of speed and danger is leagues beyond anything seen in recent “Mario Kart” games, and there’s more for players to do than hold down the gas, look for shortcuts, dispatch power-ups and hope no one cheats them out of a lead when they finally take one.

Drifting, catching air and drafting all build turbo, which players can apply to speed boosts. But the turbo also works as currency for a fantastic sideswipe maneuver, which lets players drive offensively without waiting for a power-up, as well as a forcefield that allows frontrunners to fend off power-up attacks instead of simply drive scared like sitting ducks. Timing a perfect forcefield defense isn’t easy at all, but the ability to even do so at least puts players’ fates in their own hands for a change. (Take notes, Nintendo.)

All of these ideas gel thanks to a control scheme that just feels great. Driving dangerously and racking up huge drifts is fun without being punishing if you mess up, and perfecting the timing and distance needed for a perfect attack on another driver is satisfying not only because of how fluid the controls are, but also because of how great everything looks when a strike hits its target.

For those who pick up “Racers” with no desire to play with others, the selection of on-disc tracks is nicely varied and the default difficulty a strong balance of accessible and tough. The career mode tells an actual story, and the cutscenes between races are funny and surprisingly polished.

But to play “MNR” this way is to completely miss the point of its community and creation tools, which, outside of some unfortunately long load times, mesh together under one staggeringly slick umbrella.

“MNR’s” driver and kart creation interfaces should feel familiar to anyone who has created a customized character or vehicle in another game. Both are easy to use, and while playing through the game unlocks more useable parts, the extreme flexibility of the sizing, placement and coloring tools makes the default selection feel nearly limitless as is.

The track editor, somewhat shockingly, is just as simple to use. Terrain tools allow players to model the environment like clay, and laying track is as simple as driving a track-laying-vehicle around an blank canvas. Ambitious players can overlap track and add numerous props to the area however they please, but “MNR” also provides auto-complete and auto-populate shortcuts for those who want to do something quick and dirty.

All of these creations come together in a supremely slick virtual online world that allows players, driving around in their karts as if in an MMO, to mingle with other players, download other players’ creations, and challenge anyone in the area to races on the fly. Even those who had no intention ever to race online might change their mind once they see how fantastically accessible doing so is here.


Red Dead Redemption
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Rockstar San Diego
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs)

The problem with most video game westerns is that you don’t need to appreciate the Old West to appreciate them. They’re typically designed in the mold of other games, subbing in Old West iconography but otherwise bearing little distinction from so many other shooters covering completely different periods.

“Red Dead Redemption” doesn’t have this problem, because while many of its underpinnings are unmistakably lifted from Rockstar’s “Grand Theft Auto” games, the degree to which Rockstar caters those parts to the setting — instead of the usual other way around — gives it more Wild West conviction than the sum of almost every virtual western that preceded it.

The level of conviction isn’t fully apparent until the storyline is a few hours old, but “Redemption” hints at it almost as soon as the tutorial missions end and players are free to explore the world on their terms.

At first, it’s a little disconcerting. New Austin’s vast wilderness sits in striking contrast to Liberty City’s bustling streets, but it’s no smaller a landscape, and there appears to be less to do between towns. Despite some clever control touches, riding horses naturally is slower and more laborious than driving cars, and the overly simple early missions provide little solace when players retreat back to the storyline for excitement.

But “Redemption” gradually brings its world alive. Characters met early on come together for significantly more exciting (and challenging) missions, and as players’ renown increases, so does the variety of activities in town (poker, duels, horseshoes, bounties and more) and on the frontier (herding challenges, persistent missions for strangers, even some light agriculture appreciation).

Perhaps most impressive is “Redemption’s” attention to detail with regard to wildlife. The horses display personalities and credible mannerisms. Coyotes and wolves attack at night, and bears are to be feared just as skunks, deer and birds scurry at any sign of trouble. (Sidebar: “Redemption’s” audiovisual presentation of weather patterns and day/night cycles is magnificent.) The game offers challenges to players who wish to hunt for profit, but they’re entirely optional if you’d rather just observe and save the bullets for the bandits.

Per Rockstar tradition, “Redemption” allows players to be as good or evil as they please, and the systems in place for outrunning the law make it tempting to be the bad guy.

But “Redemption’s” central storyline — which puts players in the shoes of a reformed scoundrel-turned-devoted husband whose only desire is to protect his family — makes it equally difficult not to want to fly right. All the things that made “Grand Theft Auto 4’s” story so good — strong characters, terrific voice acting, meticulous dialogue and a true sense of setting — are present here as well, and “Redemption’s” leading protagonist is easily the most likable Rockstar creation yet.

Players with a morality complex might prefer to just flash their evil side online. “Redemption” includes a couple traditional competitive multiplayer modes, but its best asset is Free Roam mode, which drops up to 16 players inside a world full of A.I. characters and allows anything to go. Players can level up and unlock new gear by teaming up and completing co-op challenges scattered around the map, but they just as easily can turn on each other or wreak random havoc against the A.I. It’s your Old West playground, and Rockstar cares not what you do in it.


Looksley’s Line Up
For: Nintendo DSi via Nintendo DSiWare Shop
From: Good-Feel Co./Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $5

after Nintendo announced the Nintendo 3DS earlier this year, Youtube users mistook a video of “Looksley’s Line Up” as a sample of what games would look like on the futuristic forthcoming handheld. They were wrong, of course, but if that isn’t a testament to how cool “LLU” is when it’s working, nothing is. The object of “LLU” is pretty simple: Find hidden letters and objects in the environment. But rather than be just another mindless object finder, “LLU” presents its levels as virtual, layered 3D dioramas. The game tracks the player’s head movements with the DSi’s front-facing camera, and players, holding the device like a book, must move their head or the device around to line up scenery different ways to make those objects and letters appear. As might be expected when using a very low-definition camera, “LLU” can be a finicky game, and while setting up the head tracking is painless, there will be times when you’ll have to recalibrate due to changes in lighting or just because the camera won’t cooperate. But that’s the price of innovation, and it’s a price well-paid when “LLU” works. Altering the environmental perspective with just a twitch of the head is extremely cool, and the normally mundane endeavor of finding objects feels fresh and rewarding with the extra element of deciphering optical illusions thrown into the mix.