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.

Games 4/6/10: Red Steel 2, Rooms: The Main Building, Save the Turtles

Red Steel 2
For: Wii
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Remember how awesome “Red Steel” was going to be, and how the amazingly immersive mix of first-person shooting and motion-controlled swordplay promised to take action games to an entirely new plane? And remember how none of that happened at all? Oh, you do? Well “Red Steel 2” would rather you didn’t, because three years later, all those empty promises finally have a game on which to hang their hats.

Fundamentally, what “RS2” does is similar enough to its predecessor to bear the franchise name. It’s still a first-person shooter and motion-controlled swordfighting game cobbled together as one.

But everything about “RS2’s” methods stands in stark, and entirely welcome, contrast to its predecessor.

For starters, and maybe finishers, it’s just plain fun. Unlike the first game, “RS2” allows players to switch between gunplay and swordplay whenever they want instead of when the game dictates, and Ubisoft puts all the pieces together to make what should be a complete controller nightmare into a slightly unwieldy but astonishingly pleasant ride. The cursor-based shooting feels considerably more intuitive this time around, and switching from gun to sword and back, while inevitably a bit disorienting given the disparity in control styles, works plenty well enough to avoid becoming the source of frustration it so easily could have been.

Though some inevitably won’t like it, Ubisoft’s decision to not just support but flat-out require Nintendo’s MotionPlus controller attachment pays off enourmously on the swordplay side. The game guides players’ movements to a small degree, but overwhelmingly, striking, thrusting and parrying are mapped precisely to how players hold the Wii remote.

The extra precision allows “RS2” to introduce a surprisingly large arsenal of swordfighting moves as the story advances, and the combat is very gratifyingly active — arguably to a fault if active gaming isn’t your thing. Lazy flicks of the wrist won’t suffice the way they did in the first game, and if you can’t get into the idea of swinging the remote with the full might you would a sword, you should just find a game that isn’t as committed to the Wii’s original vision as this one so satisfyingly is.

Superficially, the story isn’t much different. The bland, overly serious storyline from the first game is scrapped in favor of an exuberant mix of Asian cinema, post-apocalyptic dark comedy and spaghetti western, and “RS2’s” narrative structure now breaks down, “Borderlands”-style, into bite-sized missions that players eventually can accept by the handful.

The “Borderlands” approach extends to “RS2’s” visual presentation, which combines realistic and cel-shaded graphic design to create a game that would look good on any system and stands head and shoulders above most of its Wii counterparts. That the art style also suits the storyline and action so perfectly — everything about “RS2’s” approach in all three departments seems developed with a brazenly fun-first spirit in mind — certainly doesn’t hurt matters.


Rooms: The Main Building
Reviewed for: Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Hudson
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)

Considering the main objective of “Rooms: The Main Building” is to rearrange the game world in order to help the onscreen character escape the room, is it fitting or ironic that the game’s biggest problem might be its inability to get out of its own way?

Conceptually, “Rooms” is sound, if something of an odd fit for a big-screen console game. The overriding objective is to move pieces of a room around, sliding puzzle style, in such a way that allows the onscreen character to reach the exit and head to the next room. The number of pieces increases as the story progresses, and the game occasionally introduces new items and situations to mix things up a bit, but the general gist doesn’t change. “Rooms” gives players point-and-click control over the onscreen character’s movements, but the tile sliding is where the game’s real action lies.

The idea of “Rooms” being little more than a string of ornate sliding puzzles — precisely the kind of toy people invented video games to get away from — would make it a pretty hard sell in its $30 Nintendo DS form, to say nothing of its $30 Wii form.

But whether “Rooms” helps or hurts itself with the extra frills it piles on is legitimately arguable. Some will adore, possibly for all the wrong reasons, the story and overall design, which incorporate full-motion video animation and the kind of sound effects that would make 1993 proud. But anyone who wasn’t around during the CD-ROM game heyday (or was, but wishes they weren’t) likely won’t see the story as anything but intrusive and confusingly designed for no real benefit.

Those who do, meanwhile, will find it hard to endure the 100 levels it takes to see “Rooms” to its conclusion. The high level count obviously is a must for Hudson to justify the high price, but all the items and special level circumstances can do only so much to spice up what essentially is the same trick repeated ad nauseam.

“Rooms'” multiplayer suite engenders a similar lack of fulfillment. The battle mode, which pits two players in a race to complete the same puzzle at the same time, is fun for a while, but only so long as the basic gameplay holds interest in the first place.

The existence of a level design tool, meanwhile, is thoroughly puzzling. It’s sufficiently robust and probably the most polished facet of the entire game, but it includes no way to share the level with other players unless they play it on your console. Having the ability to trade more sliding puzzles online with others probably wouldn’t do much to help a game whose concept runs out of steam long before the single-player supply is tapped out, but if you’re going to these lengths to give players a means to create, why neuter the process by quashing the ability to share?


Save the Turtles
For: Nintendo DSi via DSiWare shop
From: Sabarasa
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $5

Devising clever scenarios for match-three puzzle games is about as easy these days as inventing new uses for a glass of orange juice, so Sabarasa gets credit out of the gate for doing exactly that. The goal in “Save the Turtles” is indeed to match three of a kind. But instead of sliding gems or shapes, players have to guide cartoon turtles into matching rows in order for the ocean to send a wave to pick them up. The act of guiding living objects is novel on its own, and “Turtles” builds on that novelty by populating the beach with crabs, debris and other obstacles the turtles must avoid. The sun, and its ability to give the turtles sunburn, poses an additional threat to players who don’t make matches quickly and consistently. “Turtles'” stylus controls occasionally hiccup when creating a path for a turtle to follow, but for the most part, the controls and interface function exactly as they should. Players who get used to the mechanics might be surprised how intricate the seemingly basic gameplay eventually becomes, and “Turtles” rewards those who do so with enough content — a 32-level story mode, an endless survival mode, a quick-play mode that changes certain story mode rules, unlockable achievement-like trophies — to easily justify the $5 asking price.

Games 1/26/10: Mass Effect 2, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars, Dark Void Zero

Mass Effect 2
For: Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Bioware/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, sexual content, strong language, violence)

“Mass Effect” marked a bold venture for Bioware, which took the underpinnings of its superlatively deep role-playing games and crammed them into a tactical third-person shooter with combat as real-time as in any other sci-fi action game. Surprisingly, it worked: The combat was highly imperfect but easily sufficient, and the branching storylines, deep character progression and ridiculous interplanetary scope made for one of 2007’s best games.

How impressive, then, that “Mass Effect 2” comes along and makes its predecessor look like a rough draft by comparison.

Principally, “ME2” doesn’t mess excessively with what worked previously. In particular, the storytelling — and the absolutely amazing branching conversation trees that allow the player to mold the personality of chief protagonist Commander Shepard and, by proxy, the story and galaxies around him — retains its considerable polish. “ME2” is as saturated with planets, alien races and mythology as “ME1,” but it also benefits from not having to introduce it all to the degree its predecessor did. The story takes a sharp turn straight away — a dramatic change of fortune and a pretty serious turning of some tables dictate the game’s first sequence — and while “ME2” has hours’ worth of optional side missions in tow, pretty much everything operates in the name of barreling the story forward.

(Side note for those who missed “ME1:” While “ME2” offers additional benefits to players who are already familiar with the characters and alliances, Bioware offers enough guidance to bring new players up to speed without boring those who need no introduction.)

Though “ME2” is large enough to span two discs on the Xbox 360, Bioware has done a commendable job of cutting fat where it needed cutting. A slick mining mechanic allows players to explore barren planets from the ship instead of via a pointless ride in the Mako buggy, which has been excised completely. The side missions, by extension, have more consequence in the overall ecology, and a cleaner set of menu interfaces makes it easier to (among other things) jump from one mission to another with little downtime in between.

Speaking of saving time, the famously long load times from “ME1” are considerably more tolerable (and more elegantly presented) this time around. Even more importantly, the wretched save system — which almost everyone learned, the hard way, didn’t autosave like it appeared to — has received a very user-friendly overhaul. (It works, in other words.)

But what truly is remarkable about “ME2” is how profoundly Bioware transforms the weakest ingredient of “ME1” into this game’s most jaw-dropping asset. The combat in “ME2” is more than just sufficient: It’s completely indistinguishable — in terms of speed, control fluidity, explosiveness, and enemy/squad A.I. — from the best cover-based third-person shooters available today. A stunning visual presentation, led by perhaps the best camerawork the genre has yet seen, arguably puts it at the top of the heap.

Best of all, Bioware sacrificed exactly none of the role-playing underpinnings that carried the combat in “ME1.” Those systems worked together well enough back then, but they sing in perfect harmony this time around, putting “ME2” in a class all its own when it comes to blending two traditionally disparate genres into one.


Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars
For: Wii
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Fans of Capcom’s lighthearted “Vs.” fighting games have felt understandable pangs of jealousy since the distinctively beautiful, meticulously polished but decidedly more serious “Street Fighter IV” raised the bar for fighting games nearly a full year ago.

Fortunately, “Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars” doesn’t simply end the near-decade-long “Vs.” game drought; it also closes the gap almost completely between Capcom’s 2D fighting past and the arguably perfect mix of two and three dimensions that made “SFIV” such a staggering treat for the eyes and thumbs.

This being a Wii game, “TvC” understandably cannot match the level of visual detail “SFIV” pulled off on more powerful hardware. But in borrowing that game’s approach — characters animating in full, fluid 3D but fighting on a 2D plane — it reaps the same benefits: The fighters pull off spectacular moves with abandon, but the removal of unnecessary 3D space whittles the fight down to the same psychological science that made “Street Fighter” so special in the first place. (“TvC,” to its credit, closes the graphical gap by opting for a cel-shaded visual style that really makes its infectiously outlandish style pop.)

Though the fighting shines under the guidance of the new engine, “TvC” is unmistakably a “Vs.” game at heart. The two-on-two matches represent a paring back from “Marvel Vs. Capcom’s” three-on-three insanity, but the speed and accessibility of the fighting remain several notches beyond “SFIV’s” more methodical leanings. Per brand tradition, “TvC” provides a generous arsenal for button-mashers while reserving the really good stuff for players who hunker down and learn each fighter’s respective intricacies.

Whether the roster is a boon or burden will come down to individual tastes. The Tatsunoko half of “TvC” consists of anime characters who are big in Japan but significantly lesser known here, but while the relative obscurity robs “TvC” of the dream fights “Marvel” had, it’s an arguable benefit to players intrigued by the multitude of surprises 13 brand-new (and often wildly designed) characters will afford them. Capcom’s 13 offerings should prove a bit more familiar, but the wide diversity of the cast — Ryu and Chun-Li are here, but so is Mega Man, “Dead Rising’s” Frank West and characters from “Lost Planet,” “Viewtiful Joe” and “Rival Schools” — means a bounty of quirks and highly divergent (but reasonably well-balanced) styles awaits discovery on both sides.

“TvC” complements its polished gameplay by offering enough control styles (remote/nunchuck, Classic controller, Gamecube controller) to suit everyone, and it provides plenty of longevity with a 26-ending single-player component and online multiplayer (two players) that worked without incident in pre-release testing. (Whether that holds up under the stress of thousands of players remains to be seen, but so far, so good.)

Just for fun, Capcom tosses in a “Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Shooters” mode, which is a bizarre but surprisingly filling top-down shooter that features the game’s cast and supports up to four players. The mode has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in terms of gameplay. But neither the freebie “Geometry Wars” mode that snuck its way onto “Project Gotham Racing 2,” and look how that one turned out.


Dark Void Zero
For: Nintendo DSi via the Nintendo DSi Shop
From: Other Ocean Interactive/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Everyone (fantasy violence)
Price: $5

Capcom’s infatuation with making mock Nintendo Entertainment System games in the 21st century isn’t new (see “Mega Man 9” and the upcoming “Mega Man 10”), but “Dark Void Zero” takes the trick to a new level of imagination. Like the new Xbox 360/PS3 game “Dark Void,” “Zero” is a standard shooter that sets itself apart by strapping a jet pack to the player’s back. In the case of “Zero,” though, that translates into a sidescrolling action game that looks, sounds and acts like a game from 1988. In a vacuum, “Zero” is perfect for the price: The controls are polished and responsive in spite of the retro presentation, and with three difficulty settings and a tough-but-fair continue system, it’s challenging without resorting to “MM9’s” level of punishment. But “Zero” is especially cool when viewed in context. The nostalgically sparse story sets “Void’s” table surprisingly well, and it successfully manages to imbue a sense of history into a franchise that doesn’t actually have any. The developers really run with the joke, too: “Zero’s” digital manual includes a mock story detailing why it didn’t come out in 1987 as originally intended, and the composer responsible for “Void’s” score also orchestrated an 8-bit facsimile for “Zero.” Other clever and funny touches await — including one right when the game boots — but they’re best left unspoiled.