Games 6/20: Forza Motorsport 2, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, Surf's Up

Forza Motorsport 2
For: Xbox 360
From: Turn 10/Microsoft Game Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“Forza Motorsport 2” has a problem, and that problem’s name is “Forza Motorsport.” Microsoft Game Studios’ first attempt at a hardcore driving simulation was such a knockout, there’s precious little for the sequel to do to improve on the formula.

But improve it does, particularly if you have an Xbox Live Gold Account.

While “FM2’s” single-player component is wonderfully deep, its online community is giggle-like-a-schoolgirl incredible and likely will remain so until the day “Forza 3” releases. The insanely deep car customization features practically comprise a game in their own right, and it’s a thrill to race your creations against the world’s best armchair drivers and mechanics. The paint and decal options allow your artistic juices to run absolutely wild, and you can even sell your cars on a live auction block in exchange for in-game currency, which can be used to purchase new cars within the game. How brilliant is that?

Elsewhere, the improvements are more subtle but equally important. Team 10 has tweaked an already-incredible physics engine, further bridging the gap between the game’s 300 vehicles and their real-life counterparts. The difference in how vehicles and even various parts perform is tangible even to casual observers. Such dedication to realism isn’t for everyone — success in “Forza” demands a much more subtle touch than a game like “Burnout” requires — but those who crave it will reap almost endless reward from “FM2’s” attention to depth and detail.

All that content and detail — along with a fantastically smooth framerate — has its drawbacks, at least visually speaking. While “FM2” produces some gorgeous car designs, the tracks don’t look quite as good as what other Xbox 360 racers have produced. Worse is the omission of an in-dash camera: It’s wholly understandable (good, even) that recreating 300 car interiors wasn’t at the top of Turn 10’s priority list, but a few generic options for us less picky sorts would’ve been nice.

Those issues aside, “FM2” is a monster of a game, and there’s so much more to it than a 375-word review can cover. Just know that if you love cars and love a good, exciting driving simulation, few games will spin in your 360 as long and as frequently as this one.


Mortal Kombat: Armageddon
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence)

If there’s a Nintendo Wii-related trend more disturbing than the explosion of mini-game collections that comprise too much of its library, it’s the similar sprawl of Xbox and Playstation 2 ports that developers have tried, with awkward results, to wedge onto Nintendo’s hot new property.

“Mortal Kombat: Armageddon,” which surfaced last October on the Xbox and PS2 and just now arrives on the Wii, painfully illustrates why.

On its own merits, “Armageddon” is a good fighting game. Midway offers support for three control configurations, two of which allow you to play the game the traditional way (via Wavebird or Classic controller). On this level, the action is as solid now as it was last October, and Midway backs up a fun fighting engine with a huge roster of fighters and modes both complementary (create-a-fighter, story mode, practice, multiplayer) and irreverent (a humorous kart racing game that’s surprisingly well made).

But it’s that third control configuration — the motion controls — that’s got people talking about an eight-month-old game. It’s also the reason Midway is selling “Armageddon” for $50 — or more than double what it retails for nowadays on Xbox and PS2 — despite the omission of online play on the Wii version.

Sadly, it’s also the biggest letdown. For starters, the motion controls are limited to a scant handful of special attacks. Regular punches and kicks are regulated to the Wiimote’s tiny D-pad, which is as clumsy as it sounds. Forget about pulling off combos you could execute with ease on other controllers.

Worse, the few moves that do use motion controls are contrived attacks that don’t even match up with whatever motion you’re making. If you were hoping to punch your opponent simply by mimicking the motion yourself, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The 1:1 immersion that drives games like “Wii Sports” and “Tiger Woods” is completely absent here, and the motion controls merely serve to complicate matters for no good reason.

It’s hard to knock “Armageddon” too much, because it is a good game. But it’s a good game that lacks both its chief selling point and the online play cheaper versions have. If you need a fighting game and don’t have another system, there’s fun to have here, but it’s not the fun you had in mind when you dropped $250 on that Wii.


Surf’s Up
For: Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Nintendo Wii, Gamecube and PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, language)

Honestly, who doesn’t expect a kids-centric licensed game based on a film about surfing penguins to not be horrible? If “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” couldn’t rise above the crushing tide of disappointment, what chance does this game have?

Here’s the thing, though: We haven’t had a surfing game of any kind in a few months shy of five years. How this drought came to be is a mystery, but Ubisoft seems to have received the memo. Instead of churning out some unfocused drivel that cashes in on the movie’s assumed popularity, it has instead produced a competent, fun and family-friendly surfing game that’s a more pleasant surprise than all three aforementioned games combined.

That’s not to say “Surf’s Up” is exceptional or even worth a buy. It has problems, including a doozy we’ll get to in a moment. The on-rails design — your surfer of choice constantly is moving forward, with a wave off to the left or right and all manner of obstacles straight ahead — will feel too simple for those hungry for a serious surfing game. There’s also the occasional weird problem with physics and collision detection that sometimes will cause you to tricks you could otherwise land with your eyes closed.

Still, the game is strangely fun on a very simple level. The trick system is solid in spite of the random issues, and nailing a combo after launching off a monster wave at just the right time is quite a bit of fun. The 10 playable characters each feature their own distinct bag of tricks, and the game offers a few side objectives in addition to racking high score after high score. Meeting those objectives nets you new characters, customizable surfboards, character accessories and (on the Xbox 360) achievement points.

Unfortunately — doozy time — “Surf’s Up” is almost comically short. An hour and change is all it takes to complete the game’s main objectives, and two or three more should take care of all the side objectives. None of the versions feature online play, and all that remains is a four-player split-screen mode. That’s not a lot of value for a game that costs between $40-$50. Ubisoft did a nice job exceeding gameplay expectations, but it’s hard to recommend anything higher than a rental until the price drops.

Games 4/18: Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales, Wii Charge Station, Wii Wireless Sensor Bar, Wii HD-Link Component Cable, Meet the Robinsons, Prince of Persia: Rival Swords

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales
For: Nintendo DS
From: Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, fantasy violence)

There are two types of gamers, and their division is assured during the “Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales” title sequence — an adorable, hand-drawn animated sequence that either will charm the your pants off or send your lunch right back out your mouth. “Tales” never hedges its artistic bets, and the cuteness persists throughout, so plan accordingly depending on what side of that fence you sit.

Should all this terrible happiness not be a deterrent, a pretty unique genre hybrid awaits. The bulk of “Tales” is comprised of various mini-games, which, upon completion, unlock new areas and advance the central storyline. Meanwhile, a second barrage of optional mini-games pop up everywhere, rewarding you with special cards that can be used during boss battles, which play out in your standard card-battle fashion.

Give credit to the mini-games for holding their own in the project. The DS is no stranger to mini-games, but the crop in “Tales” is rich with selections that are both clever and surprisingly challenging at their highest difficulty levels. The quest-driving mini-games also come in multiple flavors, and all support wireless multiplayer. (Square-Enix included support for online card battles, but the mini-games are wireless only.) Last but not least, these games look outstanding, unfolding like an animated pop-up book and incorporating the “Final Fantasy” universe in all manner of clever and funny ways. (All together now: Awwww!)

“Tales'” card battle system is in no way as intricate as what you’ll find in a dedicated card battler, but it’s ideal for someone who may either be new to the genre or not all that crazy about it in the first place. Collecting cards and assembling your dream deck is pretty fun, and the battles grow increasingly deep once the system’s intricacies reveal themselves. If you’re still not jazzed by the prospect of card battles, take heart: The mini-games are both more frequent and (eventually) playable outside of the adventure.

The juxtaposition of card battler, adventure game and mini-game compilation is an odd one, but the different elements gel together with surprisingly good results. “Tales” pays equal respect to each genre, and it respects players similarly by not dumbing anything down. The wealth of content and multiplayer support seals the deal. Self-conscious gamers probably won’t be caught dead anywhere near this, but guess what? Their problem, their loss.


Wii Charge Station
Wii Wireless Sensor Bar
Wii HD-Link Component Cable
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nyko
Prices: $30 (Charge Station), $20 (Wireless Sensor Bar), $20 (HD-Link)

Nintendo got a lot of things right with the Wii, which is why it remains as hard to find today as it was five months ago. But “a lot” is not and never will be synonymous with “everything,” and some third-party solutions have begun trickling in to plug the holes Nintendo left unfilled.

Of its three major product offerings, Nyko’s Charge Station is bound to turn the most heads. Nintendo shipped the Wii controller without any sort of integrated renewable energy solution, and anyone lacking a set of rechargeable AAs had a potentially expensive problem.

The Charge Station changes that, and Nyko deserves extra credit for not only selling a docking station that can charge two Wiimotes simultaneously, but for including two battery packs as well. Social gamers get an efficient solution in one box, while soloists with two Wiimotes handy always have a spare pack ready to go. The Charge station also ships with two rubberized battery covers (also sold separately, $5.99 for a pair) that make accidentally launching the Wiimote at your TV (hopefully) a thing of the past.

By requiring four AA batteries to function, Nyko’s Wireless Sensor Bar undoes some of the good done by its Charge Station. But for Wii owners who want to take greater advantage of a large room, wall-mounted television set or projector, it’s a godsend.

The Wireless Sensor Bar’s infrared signal casts a huge net, and it recognizes the Wiimote from a noticeably greater distance than what the Wii’s pack-in sensor bar can accomplish. Playing the Wii on a projector or wall-mounted television was possible before, but it involved all manner of creative and clumsy wiring that Nyko’s solution happily eliminates. Battery usage is an issue if you haven’t upgraded to rechargeables, but the LED light and an option to set an auto-off timer ensure you won’t forgetfully leave it on after use.

The arrival of Nyko’s HD-Link isn’t quite as exciting: Vendors flooded the market with component cables after demand for Nintendo’s cable outstripped supply. Still, if you’ve been waiting for a moderately-priced solution from a reputable third party, this is it. Nyko’s cable offers quality on par with Nintendo’s offering, and you actually can find it in stores, which is a great touch.


Meet the Robinsons
For: Wii, Xbox 360, PS2, PSP, Gamecube and PC (alternate versions available for Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance)
From: Avalanche Software/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, cartoon violence)

Given that “Meet the Robinsons” involves not just robots, not just robots and gadgets, but robots, gadgets and a time machine, it’s easy to hope against hope that it rises above the scrap heap of mediocrity most movie-tie-in games call home. The brief opening sequence, set in the throes of a crumbling prehistoric palace, don’t exactly dampen these hopes.

Unfortunately, “Robinsons” follows this opener by unleashing a fetch-quest pile-on that quickly, albeit somewhat enjoyably, brings those big dreams back to earth. (Considering how brilliant these Robinsons are, you wouldn’t believe what it takes to get the code to open the garage door.) The errand bonanza provides a good introduction to a handful of mini-games and key gadgets, and it’s never mundane enough to make turning off the system a tempting alternative. Several parts are even fun, albeit in a “I’ve done this a million times before” sort of way.

Still, once it ends and the adventuring resumes, it’s clear where “Robinsons'” strengths and weaknesses lie. It’s a good, mechanically sound game that respectably cops from several revered games (“Legend of Zelda,” “Ratchet and Clank,” “Tomb Raider,” even a little “Super Monkey Ball”), but it never quite plays in the same league as those classics.

On the other hand, “Robinsons” also pays great respect to the film by not only providing unfettered access to its cast and major environments, but also by telling the story from an angle not even seen in the movie. That alone often is enough to get fans to play through a lousy licensed game, so it’s nice to see it take place in a game that’s actually enjoyable. It also makes the game’s clumsy approach to adventure progression (see “garage door,” above) much easier than usual to forgive.

“Robinsons” stays true to itself, for better or worse, no matter which console you own. The Wii version doesn’t take particularly special advantage of the motion controls despite some clear opportunities for it (and a heftier price tag than the Gamecube edition). Similarly, the Xbox 360 and PC versions are no more graphically spectacular than the others, which all look nice but rarely ever dazzle. The 360 edition wins the feature war, thanks to a bonus mini-game and the 1,000 unlockable achievement points hidden within, but no version is markedly worse off than the others.


Prince of Persia: Rival Swords
For: Wii and PSP
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, violence)

Very sneaky, that Ubisoft, stamping a game from 2005 with a brand-new name that screams, “I’m a sequel!” before later proclaiming, “You got hosed!” after you excitedly purchase it under false assumptions. Some semi-fine print on the back of the box makes it clear “Prince of Persia: Rival Swords” is based on “Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones,” but what it doesn’t make clear is that it IS “The Two Thrones,” albeit with some new tricks here and there.

On the Wii side, the big news is the controls, which have changed to accommodate the Wiimote’s special capabilities. Instead of pressing a button to perform a certain attack, for instance, you perform a gesture that mimics the attack. As with every game built for another system and then ported to the Wii, the new controls aren’t as cohesive as they would be for a game built for the system from the ground up. In the case of “Swords,” some gestures greatly add to the experience, while others clumsily take you out of it.

A bigger problem — though never a crippling one — is the issue of camera control. Easily the Wii’s biggest control handicap is its lack of dual analog joysticks, and the run-and-jump-heavy “Swords” is merely the latest game to demonstrate why. You can control the camera like always, and you still can enable the wide camera during trickier platforming situations. But camera control via the Wiimote is nowhere near as intuitive as the traditional method. Considering “Thrones” is already available for the Wii via Gamecube backward compatibility (for $30 less, to boot), this aggravation is a potential deal-killer.

With a drunk camera and a crop of aesthetic issues popping up regularly, the PSP version of “Swords” approaches can’t quite match the quality of its console forbearers. To compensate, the game ships with exclusive content, including new story sequences, chariot races and entire levels.

The headliner, though, is the introduction of multiplayer, which materializes as a race through an area against a friend. “Swords'” platform-heavy levels make these races both daringly fun and conducive to strategy, and the ability to set traps and ensnare your rival is just plain genius. It’s too bad “Swords” supports wireless but not online play, but that’s pretty much par for the course on the PSP these days.