Games 2/21/07: Sonic and the Secret Rings, Wii Play

Sonic and the Secret Rings
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Sonic Team/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Cartoon Violence)

Few video game mascots have had a rougher 21st century than Sonic, who has been party to one three-dimensional letdown after another since showing promise seven years ago on the Dreamcast.

With “Sonic and the Secret Rings,” Sega’s iconic blue hedgehog finally gets his intervention. The Wii’s unique controller all but forces Sonic to go back to the gameplay style that made him famous — blazing forward, jumping with precision, grabbing rings and busting some heads in mid-air for good measure. Boring exploration, pointless mech levels, contrived teamwork garbage, a bewildered camera that doesn’t know where to point … all gone, replaced by a fast, single-minded, streamlined adventure that employs the Wiimote’s motion controls with sterling results.

“Rings” plays as much like a racer as an adventure game, and it’s laid out like a cross between the two as well. Each locale features a collection of levels akin to tracks in a race. Some merely ask you to stay alive, while others sport more clever objectives (don’t break any jars in your path, beat x number of enemies before reaching the goal). Levels from different areas often become available out of order, and you’re free to complete any open challenge, increase Sonic’s abilities, and use that boost to tackle levels you previously couldn’t lick (or simply replay completed levels in hopes of achieving the top ranking in each). The best of both worlds are here: You get a decent enough story to glue the adventure together, but you also get plenty of motivation to replay levels long after you see how the story ends.

“Rings” scores additional points by tacking on a multiplayer party mode other developers might attempt to pass off as a standalone game (“Fuzion Frenzy 2,” anyone?). There are 40 mini-games here, and “Rings” offers multiple ways to play them (board game style, treasure hunt style, tournament style) and support for four players (or computer opponents of adjustable difficulty to fill in when necessary). Some of the mini-games are sloppy to the point of broken, but most are fun and quite a few of them are really inspired. Not bad at all for what essentially is a cherry on the sundae.


Wii Play
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Mild Cartoon Violence)

Everything the Wii is today, it owes to “Wii Sports,” a freebie collection of sports games that everyone assumed would be a temporary diversion but instead materialized as the system’s first killer app. Who can blame “Wii Play” for wanting to ride the same wave into people’s collective consciousness? The price certainly is right: “Play” costs $50 but includes a $40 Wiimote, so it’s essentially a $10 game if you have some use for an additional controller.

“Play” features nine mini-games which aim — in case “Sports,” “Rayman: Raving Rabbids” and “WarioWare” weren’t convincing — to demonstrate just how versatile that Wiimote really is. To that effect, it certainly succeeds. Games range from a “Duck Hunt”-style shooting gallery (point and shoot, Zapper-style) to billiards (hold the Wiimote like a pool cue) to fishing (fishing rod) to “Pong”-style air hockey (paddle) to table tennis (ditto).

In terms of quality and control, “Play” aces every test. Billiards feels like billiards, fishing feels like fishing, and the stranger games — which include cow racing, a “Where’s Waldo”-style game involving your Mii characters and a fantastic little “Battle Tanx” knockoff — are great fun.

Feature-wise, though … yikes. While “Sports” certainly didn’t do all it could in the options department, it did enough. “Play,” however, offers next to nothing. The billiards game features only one game style, and the table tennis game only ends if you complete (or fail to complete) a 100-volley rally. There’s no scoring. Since the only object of each game is to obtain a gold medal-worthy score, options (or even varying difficulty levels) aren’t allowed. Once you’ve gone for the gold, little motivation exists to go further.

Some issues resolve themselves with a second player: Table tennis features scoring, while the games in general are more challenging and unpredictable. But that’s not enough to keep “Play” from feeling like a giant tease. It’s easily worth the $10 if you could use a new Wiimote, but you’ll wish you could pay four times that for a billiards game that combines this level of control with some real depth. Nintendo has made its case for the Wiimote’s versatility; now it’s time to make some games that speak to ours

Games 1/24/07: WarioWare: Smooth Moves, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

WarioWare: Smooth Moves
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo/Intelligent Systems
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

If “Wii Sports” was an aptitude test for new Wii owners, “WarioWare: Smooth Moves” is akin to cramming for midterms. Whether you’ve beaten “Halo” on legendary or never handled a video game controller in your life, you can thank “Moves” for leveling the playing field and delivering an experience that will drive everyone equally crazy.

For the uninitiated, “WarioWare” games are comprised of tons (in this case, more than 200) of “microgames,” which basically are minigames on speed. Each microgame lasts five seconds or less, provides maybe a word of instruction, and then skedaddles out of sight while a new, randomly-chosen microgame takes over. It sounds simplistic on paper, but in practice it’s maddeningly fun, thanks equally to a bizarre graphic style, even stranger (and genuinely funny) sense of humor, and some brilliant approaches to game design not seen elsewhere.

Like “WarioWare Touch!” (Nintendo DS touch screen/microphone) and  “WarioWare Twisted!” (Game Boy Advance cartridge with built-in tilt sensor), “Moves” automatically feels fresh due to the limitless possibilities granted by new hardware — in this case, the Wiimote and Nunchuck controllers.

This time, the microgames involve holding the controllers in a multitude of ways — like an umbrella, a holstered sword, a steering wheel, even an elephant’s trunk — and completing all manner of objectives ranging from practical and straightforward to vague and frighteningly strange. It’s not always clear (nor is it supposed to be) what to do, and it’s not necessarily a cakewalk when it is. The Wiimote will betray you now and then, but “Moves” is far more than not a testament to just how impressively flexible Nintendo’s little controller is.

“Moves'” only big mistake is its strange refusal to admit just how awesome a party game it is. The game case implies “Moves” is a single-player-only affair, and the manual doesn’t help matters. Worst of all, Nintendo tucked away the multiplayer mode — a euphorically fun pass-the-Wiimote train wreck-o-rama for up to 12 players — as an unlockable reward for finishing the story mode. Folks who want to share the fun right away will have to wait — and that’s only if they aren’t misled into thinking the mode was cut entirely.


Lost Planet: Extreme Condition
For: Xbox 360
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen

Capcom harnessed the full promotional power of Xbox Live by releasing a demo of “Lost Planet” way back in May, long before the game even had a release date. Busloads of Xbox 360 owners downloaded — and loved — the demo. And “Planet,” despite being a completely new and completely unproven franchise, enjoyed the kind of pre-release hype usually reserved for a big-budget sequel.

Finally, the other 90 percent of the game is publicly available. And while it’s not a great deal different than the 10 percent we saw last spring, it delivers on the promises the demo made.

Despite the surprisingly heavy (and arguably regrettable) infusion of storytelling, “Planet” really is about one thing: Shooting stuff. Sometimes you shoot stuff on foot. Other times, it’s from the womb of a giant mech. Sometimes that stuff is people — specifically, the agents and snow pirates who comprise much of the sparse human population on E.D.N. III, a snow-covered wasteland straight out of “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Mostly, though, “stuff” refers to bugs — big ones, huge ones, enormous ones, “oh my god!” ones and the nests from which they spawn. “Planet” easily is one of the 360’s prettiest games, and some of its encounters — featuring screen-sized insects that challenge you to keep your balance, never mind survive — are instantly legendary. The innovative creature designs, incredible special effects and sheer activity scream “blockbuster,” and the unique health system allows you to take full advantage and live pretty dangerously. Even when “Planet” does its best to frustrate — and camera issues, tons of cheap attacks and an inconsistent checkpoint system ensure it often will — it never bores.

“Planet’s” taste for firepower and horsepower makes it a perfect candidate for pick-up-and-play multiplayer, and that’s precisely what we get here. You can’t play as the giant worm, and outside of some game-specific influences, nothing here is terribly new. But tearing up E.D.N. III with up to 15 of your closest friends is tremendous fun all the same, and Capcom doesn’t ruin it by dropping the technical ball.

Games 12/13/06: Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony, Call of Duty 3 Wii, Kirby: Squeak Squad, Rampage: Total Destruction (Wii)

Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony
For: PSP
From: SuperVillain Studios/Gas Powered Games/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Teen

The worst thing about “Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony?” Why, it’s its timing. “Throne” arrives on the PSP smack in the middle of the holiday rush, seemingly yet another victim of the tidal wave of more familiar non-PC game hits that drowns gamers annually.

That’s a pity, too, because this is the hacking, slashing dungeon crawler a certain segment of the PSP-carrying population has lusted after since the system launched nearly two years ago. Where a handful of games have failed due to problems ranging from bland design to uninspired execution, “Throne” succeeds by committing no such sin.

For starters, it’s rarely ever dull. “Throne” doesn’t deviate a great deal from the dungeon crawler formula — which, admittedly, is a blueprint for repetitive, grinding gameplay. What it does do, though, is complement that simple formula with depth in every respect. The game is an adventurer’s paradise, crammed with truckloads of diverse environments to explore, quests to undertake, monsters to slay and rare (and useful) treasure to find. It also lets you play your way, offering character classes that are upgradeable in a slew of ways and can master a dynamically-growing list of skills and jobs as the game progresses.

All this daunting depth is made consumable by “Throne’s” other shining plus: total and complete user-friendliness. An exceptional interface makes sifting through the myriad upgrade options a piece of cake even for genre rookies, and the ability to stack found items against your inventory on the fly makes it refreshingly simple to decide what’s worth equipping, worth selling and best left behind. There’s even a color-coding system that ranks the special items according to value. If you like your depth with a side of convenience, heaven awaits.

Beyond this — and in addition to a stylish storyline that isn’t afraid to be a little silly at times — the game is just fun to play. It’s fast, pretty and unhindered by lousy cameras and sloppy A.I. The occasional long load time is a bummer, but the PSP’s sleep feature means you still can pick up and play this one at a moment’s notice — a nice compensation for the many, many moments spent waiting for a game like this to appear.


Call of Duty 3
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Treyarch/Exakt/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen

The Wii is an exciting new system with unspeakable potential, but it’s a system developers are still learning to understand. There may be no better example than “Call of Duty 3,” which enjoys a dual existence as both a fun game and an unflattering exposure of the Wii’s warts.

Save for graphics (not nearly as good) and online play (omitted), “COD3” is identical, feature-wise, to its big-ticket Xbox 360 and PS3 counterparts. That means the same storyline, battles, and obligatory tutorial level at the onset of the campaign. Mostly, that’s good news: Despite less horsepower, the Wii doesn’t get saddled with a less exciting game.

But it’s also bad news. The flimsy tutorial — all of three minutes long — is serviceable when playing with a controller but wholly undercooked when trying to master a brand-new control scheme. “COD3” uses the Wiimote and Nunchuck (required) to emulate a PC mouse/keyboard setup, and it’s pretty common sense stuff. But it’s still nice to develop some level of proficiency before entering a fight as intense as the battles here. Prepare to die — often — as you fumble to learn how to be a good shot while German bullets swarm you every time you peek around cover. Exciting? You bet. But frustrating? Goodness, yes.

It gets worse. Throwing a grenade by shaking the Nunchuck is fun in concept, but having to press the D-pad (instead of, say, a button on the Nunchuck) first means you’ll inevitably budge the Wiimote, which inadvertently moves your aiming reticule and causes you throw the grenade off target. This isn’t the game’s fault so much as the controller’s, and it underscores the potential for problems caused by not having enough buttons handy (and perhaps the need for a more full-featured attachment down the line).

Other weird issues — including a weapon struggle mini-game that’s absurdly demanding in terms of precision — further fuel the frustration. But for every aggravation, there’s a moment — a sniper mission here, a surprisingly smooth driving mission there — that immerses players in ways the flashier versions cannot. Patient gamers hungry for new experiences should check this one out, but be warned: The developers are still learning, and they expect you to learn right alongside them.


Kirby: Squeak Squad
For: HAL Laboratory/Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Playing “Kirby: Squeak Squad” after playing last year’s “Kirby: Canvas Curse” is like eating an ordinary pretzel after trying one of those soft pretzels with the cinnamon glaze for the first time. It’s hard to go back to plain old salt, and it’s just as hard to go back to a traditional Kirby game after playing “Curse,” which turned the formula on its ear and used the DS’ touch screen capabilities to brilliant effect.

But a pretzel by any other flavor is still a treat, and that same adage applies to “Squad,” which takes a lot of what made prior Kirby games good, mixes in a few new tricks, and produces an experience that’s a little too familiar but a lot of fun nonetheless.

Kirby fans will know what to expect: “Squad” is two-dimensional platformer, and Kirby’s abilities to jump, float and vacuum-swallow enemies whole is compounded by whatever form he temporarily embodies after swallowing certain enemies. Forms include plenty of returing favorites (swordfighter, wheel, tornado, arrow-shooting angel, bomb-lobber), but “Squad” introduces some new ones as well, including a rabid animal, an rather charming magician and others which are best left unspoiled.

Beyond the occasional mini-game, “Squad” uses the touch screen as a means to store up to five forms, power-ups and/or treasure chests. This comes into play in a good way: Many levels feature multiple paths, and mastering the game as it’s meant to be mastered (the rather humorous story provides the details) means finding your way into these visible but obstructed areas. You’ll need to embody certain forms at certain times to do so, and the capacity to store forms makes it possible for “Squad” to add some strategic challenge to what otherwise would be a pretty soft game.

None of this will make anyone forget “Curse,” the sequel to which hopefully is either in development as you read this or on its way there. But Kirby is one of Nintendo’s best and most unheralded characters, and there’s no reason he can’t headline two series instead of one as long as the games keep delivering like they do.


Rampage: Total Destruction
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

Sift through the Wii’s launch library, and you’ll find plenty of examples of how games we’ve played for years can be dramatically reinvented — and in a good way — on Nintendo’s new system.

“Rampage: Total Destruction,” on the other hand, represents the opposite phenomenon: a respectably-designed game made worse, not better, by the inclusion of Wiimote controls (and the lazy development team that included them).

If “Destruction” seems a bit familiar, that’s because it originally released in April on the PS2 and Gamecube. Introduced as a budget-priced modernization of a beloved arcade classic, “Destruction” was just that — “Rampage” with more monsters (nearly 40 to the original game’s three), more modes, more real cities, more means of destroying them and better graphics, sound and animation. “Rampage” hasn’t aged as well as some arcade games, but Midway mostly delivered on its promise with a simplistic but fun (and funny and nostalgic) pick-up-and-play game.

Little has changed since April beyond a slight jump ($10) in price and Wiimote-specific controls. Unfortunately, the latter is where “Destruction’s” biggest problem lies. The idea of using the Wiimote to punch buildings and throw cars is an extremely appealing one, but the controls are so tacked-on that the idea is far better than the reality.

For starters, because “Destruction” wasn’t built from the ground up with the Wii in mind, half the commands (punching, jump) are relegated to button presses while the other half (smashing, grabbing) now work via Wiimote motions. (You can also move you monster by tilting the Wiimote, but plugging in the nunchuck and using the analog stick cannot be recommended enough.)

Unfortunately, these motions involve nothing more than flicking the Wiimote up/down or left/right, so it never feels like you’re destroying anything. It’s also much too easy for the game to confuse your movements and grab when you want to smash. Miss those simple button presses yet? If you play hashed-together games like this, you will. You’re better off getting the cheaper Gamecube version and playing that on your Wii if you need a “Rampage” fix.

Games 12/6/06: Red Steel, Need for Speed: Carbon, Call of Duty 3, Blitz: The League (360)

Red Steel
For: Wii
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen

While most developers — Nintendo included — take the safe, sound route with their initial offering of Wii games, Ubisoft has hit the ground sprinting with a game that purports not only to be a full-fledged first-person shooter, but a first-person sword-fighter as well. Throw in an instruction manual featuring seven pages dedicated solely to the controls, and it’s clear someone’s feeling pretty plucky about their place on Nintendo’s hot new console.

Speaking generously, Ubi bats .500. Like most games that try to do two different things, “Red Steel” does neither as well as one hopes and never feels as complete as it should.

The shooting side is where “Steel” fares best. Numerous problems abound: The aiming sensitivity isn’t customizable enough, zooming is awkward (instead of pulling the Wiimote in close like you would a gun, you do the exact opposite), and the game sports an ugly glitch that causes the aiming reticule to occasionally, randomly jump a couple of inches and back. These issues, on top of a game that’s mostly average in FPS terms, means it isn’t time just yet to abandon the more traditional methods on other consoles.

And yet the possibilities still manage to shine through. With time — and when “Steel” isn’t glitching — the Wiimote and nunchuck attachment make for a surprisingly intuitive combo. The extra layer of immersion really sinks in during the game’s better firefights, which take place everywhere from car washes to pachinko halls to a spa featuring towel-clad thugs. Ubi unquestionably rushed this one out the door for launch, but it managed to make use of everything from the nunchuck’s motion-sensing abilities to the Wiimote’s built-in speaker (listen for a nice touch when you reload your weapon, for instance).

“Steel’s” interspersed swordplay sequences, on the other hand, are all bust. On top of making zero sense (since you still have your gun and appear to have little time to stop for a sword fight), they just never feel like they should. The precise-enough control found in the shooting segments takes a powder here, and your best bet is to just swing away like a madman instead of formulate any sort of intelligent attack. Unfortunately, what’s effective isn’t necessarily fun. And that’s a shame, because the Wiimote is made for moments like these.


Need for Speed: Carbon
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Xbox, PS2, PSP, PC, Wii and Gamecube
From: EA
Rated: Everyone 10+

EA’s “Need for Speed” series is not exactly what you’d call a driver’s ed teaching tool. But that changes ever so slightly with “Need for Speed: Carbon,” which reminds us that even law-ducking street racers sometimes need to follow the rules of the road.

“Carbon” lifts most of what made last year’s “Most Wanted” so good: an activity-rich open world, multiple race types, a hokey story mode, car customization up the wazoo and arguably the best impromptu cop chases ever processed into video game form. The airtight mix of speed and solid handling returns completely untouched, and EA saves you some early aggravation by spotting you a much nicer first car as the story mode kicks off. (Cars can be purchased and upgraded per usual, and even players with an aversion to tuning may find the new autosculpting feature an addictive treat.)

The new story and setting in “Carbon” provide the basis for most of the game’s changes. You’ll see a lot of “Most Wanted” in the game’s open world (now entirely under the cover of moonlight instead of sunshine), but “Carbon” complements the urban street races with drift-heavy canyon races that double as the game’s boss encounters. A new drift stunt event also debuts, replacing the annoying drag races of yestergame as a regular event.

Drive safely, though: While the drift system and canyon races provide plenty of fodder for daredevil behavior, Carbon Canyon features stretches of paper mache guardrails that, if broached, will spell curtains for you, your car and whatever event you’re trying to complete. If you merely got by in the handling department in “Most Wanted,” you’ll need to learn to take better care of yourself.

“Carbon’s” story cinematics are much more pervasive this time around, and the new territory theme means you’re racing with teammates instead of by your only. The change is probably the least welcome of “Carbon’s” additions: Your teammates are hard on the ears and they occasionally interfere rather than help. Fortunately, you can trap and mess up the opposition (and cops) by yourself just as you could in “Most Wanted,” and doing so makes the crew controls far less invasive than they originally appear to be.


Call of Duty 3
For: Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Xbox (alternate version available for Wii)
From: Treyarch/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen

It’s easy to take “Call of Duty 3” for granted. It comes merely a year after its predecessor, which had twice the development time. It also comes courtesy of developer Treyarch, which pulls fill-in duty while series creator Infinity Ward works on next year’s title. Finally, it’s yet another World War II game — hardly a knockout idea in a holiday period jammed with console launches and A-list blockbusters.

But once that first level kicks off, we’re reminded straight away that no shooter illustrates war quite like “Duty’s” relentless rainfall of screaming soldiers, airborne debris and round after round of gunfire whizzing by your ears. When “COD3” finds that balance between wartime strategy and wartime insanity, it’s an experience — other “Duty” games notwithstanding — without peer.

Unfortunately, those moments are fleeting, broken up by a smattering of problems ranging from a storyline that tries too hard to levels that rely too much on imaginary barriers and scripted events.

But the most troublesome issue — by far — is the game’s bizarre A.I. Enemy forces act like drones rather than trained soldiers: They run right at you, fire uncontrollably, and occasionally ignore activity taking place right behind their backs. Often, when you kill a soldier who is near another solider, that second soldier moves into the fallen soldier’s position, and you can kill him without even nudging your weapon. Sometimes this cycle repeats itself, and suddenly it’s as if you’re playing that carnival duck-shooting game instead of fighting a war.

Your allies are no brighter. They’ll shoot at cover instead of around it, and occasionally co-exist out in the open with an enemy soldier while neither fires on the other. Before the single-player campaign is over, expect a few instances in which your own soldiers get you killed by blocking your path and making it impossible to seek cover from enemy fire. It will happen.

The news is endlessly better if your aim is to play online, where the spirit of “Duty” — including vehicles this time around — lives unhindered by A.I. and storyline aggravations. The 360 version supports 24 players simultaneously; the others (save for Wii) support 16 at a time.


Blitz: The League
For: Xbox 360
From: Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature

“Blitz: The League” strived to embrace whatever the NFL wouldn’t touch — from illegal hits to illegal drugs — and package it into video game form. It more than lived up to its billing … 13 months ago.

Despite being priced like a new game, the Xbox 360 version of “League” is basically last year’s Xbox/PS2 game with touchup paint applied. Bill Romanowski joins Lawrence Taylor on the cover and in the voice cast, but he voices a player who already existed in the previous version. The 360 edition looks slightly better than its predecessors, but it doesn’t receive nearly the graphical boost you’d expect new hardware and an extra year of development time to provide. Unlockable achievements are naturally part of the package, but every 360 game has these. If you already purchased “League” once, you’re basically buying the same game if you purchase it again.

Then again, if you didn’t, this one’s new to you. And while “League” is a disappointing upgrade, it’s still an awesome game in its own right. The gameplay takes “Blitz” back to its arcade roots: eight-on-eight football, 30-yard downs, no flags and the kind of “tackles” only Vince McMahon could endorse. The story mode is a nice consolation prize for the lacking franchise mode: It comes courtesy of the same troublemakers behind ESPN’s defunct “Playmakers” television show, and it features the kind of management decisions — juice players up and risk injury, or play it straight and risk losing? — you’ll never encounter in “Madden.”

What truly makes “League” special — besides the obvious multiplayer throwdown potential — is how it makes playing defense more fun than playing offense. Give credit to the turbo-like Clash meter, which allows you to slow time on offense but is best used for delivering fumble- and injury-causing hits on defense. Clash feels like a gimmicky hindrance at first, but it hooks you fast. If the 360 version of “League” has a real selling point, it’s the ability to enjoy this sick bit of genius with a controller that’s far better designed for it than what the PS2 or Xbox could offer.

Games 11/29/06: Guitar Hero II, Tony Hawk's Project 8, Excite Truck, Genji: Days of the Blade, SingStar Rocks!

Guitar Hero II
For: Playstation 2 (coming to Xbox 360)
From: Harmonix/Red Octane/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen

Attention, Red Octane shoppers: Should you already own “Guitar Hero” and the awesome guitar controller that came with it, it’s possible to buy the sequel without being forced to buy a second controller.

That said, don’t do it. Mow a few more lawns and be a little nicer to people if you have to, but if you liked “Hero” at all, you’ll want to do whatever you need to do to round up the extra $30, make a friend and pick up “Guitar Hero II” with another guitar controller packed in.

Multiplayer in the original “Hero” was an expensive proposition: The unbundled guitar controller cost almost as much as another PS2 game, and the modes, while fun, were limited in scope. “GH2” makes multiplayer far more inviting and worthwhile by making it the centerpiece of its new feature set. The number of riff-off modes has increased, but you and a friend also can jam together for the greater good of rock in the new co-op mode. This, combined with handicapped difficulty settings and the ability to choose your favorite discipline (lead, rhythm or bass), makes it easier than ever to delude yourself into thinking you’re on stage in a band instead of in your parents’ basement playing video games. (Should your friends be a bit guitar-shy, a new and very welcome practice mode allows newbies to learn the basics in a pressure-free setting.)

Beyond the aforementioned additions, “GH2” plays like a bigger, badder version of its predecessor, with more songs (Kiss, Rage Against the Machine, Guns N’ Roses, Skynyrd, Buckethead and more than 60 more), venues, characters and eye candy. The guitar controller — a not-quite-life-sized beast that includes five chord buttons, a strum bar and a killer whammy bar — hasn’t changed in terms of functionality. But it comes in a cool shade of blood red to compliment the black model from last year’s game. You can’t very well rock the (parents’) house with matching shredders, now can you?


Tony Hawk’s Project 8
For: Xbox 360 (best), PS3, PS2, PSP and Xbox
From: Neversoft/Activision

Contrary to rumors — and perhaps to the dismay of some — “Tony Hawk’s Project 8” does not mark a return to the dead-serious “Hawk” games of old.

Neversoft’s positioning of “P8” as a soup-to-nuts rebuild of its series and its reprioritizing of skating over mischief — last seen arguably four games ago — may suggest that. But any game with a suite of objectives centered on a giant beaver mascot and his R/C car can’t be all that serious. Nor can a game that allows you not only to manually bail mid-trick, but control (for the first time) the flight and impact of your bail in order to (another first) rack up as impressive a hospital bill as possible.

The hospital bill feature takes the edge off what is a slightly but noticeably more challenging game. “P8” is still forgiving when it comes to landing inhuman tricks — particularly as your created skater’s attributes grow — but some overdue tweaks definitely have been made. It’s hard to describe these tweaks in words, but you’ll notice their presence the first time a landing you take for granted results in your face smacking one of the many sidewalks, streets or foreign objects in “P8’s” open-ended city and surrounding area. (That’s somewhat new too, as are the inspired “beat this record!” tag challenges splattered about said sidewalks and streets.)

Activision has put its marketing weight behind “P8’s” new Nail the Trick feature, and with good reason. Whereas most of the game’s movements emphasize the relationship between your board and the ground, Nail the Trick — which, when activated, slows down the action and zooms in on your feet — spotlights the relationship between your feet and the board. The left stick controls your left foot, the right controls your right, and tricks we’ve taken for granted for seven straight games — kick flips, pop shove its — suddenly become considerably more challenging and valuable, not to mention a ton more fun to execute.

No version of “P8” is a bad egg, but those with a choice are best off with the Xbox 360 version, which features graphics on par with the PS3 edition but a suite of online multiplayer options not found there. Save for some slowdown, the game looks noticeably better on next-gen systems than last year’s “Hawk” port on 360.


Excite Truck
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo

Your enjoyment of “Excite Truck” is directly and completely proportional to how soon and how well you master the ability to turbo jump. Simple as that.

It’s not that “Truck” isn’t fun without the turbo jump — it is. But the Wii’s main selling point is its ability to let us play games in strange new ways, and anyone who has purchased a driving wheel in the last 10 years (or has ever been to an arcade) has more or less experienced what “Truck’s” steering controls bring to the table. If only in this one genre, the Wii is old hat.

So it falls on “Truck” to impress in other ways. Happily, it rises to the challenge. The game is fast from bell to bell, and the tracks are loaded with deep dives, shortcuts and triggers that dynamically alter the landscape in ways that help and harm you and your adversaries. The star scoring system rewards daredevils as well as speedsters: Winning races nets you a ton of stars, but so does catching big air, wrecking opposing trucks and driving through a forest full of fender-bending trees, to name some examples.

But it’s the turbo jump — the process of applying turbo right as your truck takes to the air — that makes it all come together. Mastering the timing behind this technique will take practice, but once you get it, “Truck” goes from a seven on the fast scale to roughly a 20. Perfect your technique and string jumps together, and it’s hard not to be hooked.

Nintendo’s online strategy has been caught with its pants down at launch, so “Truck” features split-screen multiplayer for two players only. That, and a somewhat low variety of races and special challenges — ring-jumping, a slalom-like gate challenge and a demolition-derby-style manhunt — will leave mode-aholics a bit unimpressed. This doesn’t necessarily hinder the replay value, though: Like “Mario Kart” and “Wave Race” before it, “Truck” makes the most of what it does have, and there’s very little here that doesn’t command a return visit (and several more after that).


Genji: Days of the Blade
For: Playstation 3
From: Game Republic/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen

Once upon a time, it was cool to be a fixed-camera game. True 3D at a respectably high resolution wasn’t possible on the original Playstation, and going the faux-3D route for the sake of prettier graphics wasn’t a particularly bad style choice, especially with so many developers struggling to master true camera controls in the first place.

For whatever reason, “Genji: Days of the Blade” looks at that period as the good old days. The PS3 is more than capable of delivering a beautiful game in all three dimensions, and “Blade” itself is proof — a high-resolution whirlwind of color, special effects, and rich detail infusing every battle, be it in the Japanese countryside, at sea or somewhere in between. Unfortunately, you can see only what the game allows you to see. “Blade” features the same rigid third-person perspective one comes to expect from a typical full-3D game, but the ability to control that perspective is nowhere to be found.

This is more than a graphical problem — it’s a gameplay problem as well. “Blade,” being your standard hack/slash game, sends enemies after you from every direction, and trying to fight screen-sized soldiers whom you can’t see but know are behind you (or worse, in front of you) makes for an uncomfortably (and unnecessarily) claustrophobic experience. Why Game Republic didn’t throw in even rudimentary camera control boggles the mind. Something as simple as a button to rotate the viewpoint 180 degrees would’ve done wonders.

This, of course, was one of the main problems facing last year’s PS2 “Genji” game. If you got past it the first time around, you likely will be able to do so again here, and you’ll be rewarded with a much longer storyline, more and better weapons and moves (including a flashier return of the mini-game-esque Kamui special powers), and two new playable characters to complement the returning Yoshitsune and Benkei. Just don’t expect anything more than that: It may be playing on new hardware, but it’s the same old “Genji,” for better or worse.


SingStar Rocks!
For: Playstation 2
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

Sony has a deal for you: Embarrass yourself in front of others, get a free microphone.

Unlike every karaoke game that preceded it — in other words, the four iterations of “Karaoke Revolution” — “SingStar Rocks!” stomps the notion of passing the mic by including two USB microphones in one $50 package and practically bribing would-be glass-breakers to duet, have a sing-off and even participate in team-based challenges. Soloists can hone their craft by their only, but “Rocks!” takes the ball and runs with the notion that karaoke is rarely a solo affair.

The “SingStar” series has been a hit in Europe for a couple of years and four versions of its own, so “Rocks!” isn’t exactly a rookie effort despite its rookie status in America. The game’s voice- and note-recognition technology is serviceable, and the clean, minimalist layout is a time-tested means of attracting new players and non-gamers with as little fuss as possible.

Still, “Revolution” vets be warned: “Rocks!” isn’t quite as generous in terms of letting flat notes by, and there’s no satisfactory means of letting you know how best to adjust your pitch and tempo. This and the lack of a satisfying tutorial/practice mode means you’re left to figure this one out on your own — not a big deal if you’re goofing off with friends, but potentially aggravating if you’re discovering this one alone.

Other “rookie” mistakes? The 30-song lineup (including Thin Lizzy, Marvin Gaye, The Killers, Joss Stone and The Rolling Stones) is more authentic than “Revolution’s” sound-alike songs, but it’s also considerably smaller in size. And in a bizarre karaoke no-no, there’s no option to mute the original singers and sing along to just the backing music.

Still, even that last oversight can’t curb what is one of the PS2’s better multiplayer train wrecks-in-waiting. Karaoke in any quantity is an easy crowd-pleaser, but turning it into a group activity takes the fun (and trauma) to cool new heights. “Revolution” remains the better game overall with its larger lineup and variety of modes, but casual party gamers in search of an affordably-priced party-in-a-box will find plenty to enjoy here.