Games 11/30/10: Create, Gran Turismo 5, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Spelunker HD

Create
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows, Macintosh
From: EA Bright Light Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone

For whatever reason — and the title sure doesn’t help — “Create” has been perceived as a genre rival to “LittleBigPlanet,” a 2D platformer that allowed players to design and share their own levels and has a sequel coming in January that lets people design entire games across a multitude of genres. “Create” doesn’t do that, which naturally makes it sound sorely overmatched.

But “Create” doesn’t do that because it isn’t designed to do that. Rather, this is “The Incredible Machine” for the modern era — a series of simple problems in need of complicated, Rube Goldberg-esque solutions, with a nice helping of physics and other contemporary amenities to freshen up a beloved but long-neglected video game concept.

“Create’s” cheerfully colorful exterior marks it as a game that wants to appeal to all ages, and its first hour — which meticulously introduces the concept and interface through a series of extremely easy problem-solving challenges — might raise some alarms. The interface tutorial is appreciated, because “Create’s” pop-up menu system most definitely requires a period of acclimation before it feels natural. But the extreme ease of the early challenges is enough to ignite concern that this might be nothing more than a “Machine” imitator that’s afraid to challenge people.

Don’t worry; it gets better. “Create” gradually introduces challenges that award players based on their ability to solve multiple objectives or complete a single objective with style or by using as few objects as possible. Every completed challenge introduces new objects into the sandbox, and eventually, those objects introduce new physical properties (magnetism, for instance), combine to form more complex objects (two wheels plus a girder equals a makeshift car), and introduce properties that are harder to predict (a pinball bumper) or come alive in ways that must be harnessed toward completing the goal (rockets, missile-firing tanks). The puzzles reflect the increased complexity through increasingly weird objectives with more variables in play, and “Create” starts handing out some really good brainteasers halfway through the second (of 10) zone.

Though the pop-up menu system isn’t the most streamlined of interfaces (tip: use the D-Pad to rotate and resize the objects, even if that’s never communicated in the tutorial), navigating through “Create” is a mostly pleasant experience. The game makes trial and error a frustration-free endeavor, allowing players to test a solution at any time during its construction and instantly sending them back to the edit screen with a single button press and no loading. A weird but oddly enjoyable decorating component lets armchair designers dress up different zones just for the heck of it, and players can drop objects into each zone (and even the title screen) and freely test their properties toward whatever purpose they please.

That last touch of experimental freedom leads into the one page “Create” borrows — and borrows well — from the “LittleBigPlanet” playbook: challenge creation and sharing. Players can devise their own problems using the existing zones or a free-play sandbox, and as long as the problem has a workable solution, they can upload it and share it with friends, strangers or both. Players also can share solutions to the game’s built-in levels and even redecoration blueprints, and a Community Challenge feature tasks players with submitting creative contraptions according to a theme in hopes of getting their design in the game’s Hall of Fame. The online features work flawlessly, and provided “Create” develops its deserved following, they should give the game some very long legs going forward.

(Note: These online features aren’t available in the Wii version.)

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Gran Turismo 5
For: Playstation 3
From: Polyphony Digital/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics)

Years of delays in the supposed name of perfection have elevated “Gran Turismo 5” to a legendary status it never really earned. Polyphony Digital’s all-world driving simulation franchise is marked as much by stubbornness as it is by obsessiveness, and if you’re surprised that the latest entrant hasn’t evolved like it probably should have, it’s your own fault.

That isn’t a blanket indictment of “GT5’s” quality so much as a reminder that Polyphony’s baby plays by its own rules even when it bends to convention. The overdue introduction of vehicle damage ranges from invisible to ineffectual. The menu interface, particularly when sorting through different events with different entrance requirements, is supremely user-unfriendly. And the artificial intelligence remains oxymoronic, with A.I.-controlled cars following a predefined path and reacting to players only when the laws of physics make it impossible not to.

The obsessive attention to detail also takes a hit when the boasting gets broken down. Yes, there are 1,000 cars in “GT5’s” garage, but 18 of them are different versions of the Mazda RX-7, and 41 more are Nissan Skylines. And while the top 200 of those cars are meticulously recreated, the remaining 800 are less impressive, with exterior ornaments textured in and engine sounds and interiors that aren’t necessarily authentic. Car fanatics likely can appreciate the differences between different years of the same model, but casual players may wonder why they unlocked yet another Toyota Celica — or why, even though the game looks phenomenal when a race is in motion, some cars just look “off” when sitting idle.

But here’s that reminder again: “GT5” is aimed squarely at people who dearly love cars — to the degree that laboriously sorting through the parameters of seemingly indistinguishable vehicles is a cherished feature instead of a chore — and it holds no concern for those who come away feeling alienated by the labyrinth of menus, nitpicks and unintuitive progress roadblocks that await.

For that first crowd, though, there is a ton of content here. The A-Spec Mode houses all the cups and traditional career progression, while B-Spec lets players try their hand at coaching instead of driving. The License Test challenges return, but in a series first, “GT5” ties every mode into a single, persistent experience system that lets players go straight to entering cups without having to pass any license tests first.

The Special Events mode is “GT5’s” most interesting new feature, as it sends players into challenges designed around go karting, NASCAR, rally racing and even the “Top Gear” test track. The game’s attention to detail with regard to each discipline’s unique physics and demands is really impressive, but the event designs (sometimes you get races, other times some absurdly strict tests) are hit and miss.

“GT5” also brings the series fully online for the first time, though this, by Polyphony’s own admission, remains a work in progress. Some light social networking features allow friends to gift each other cars and post messages to each other’s walls, and the lobby system lets players set up races by whatever rules they prefer. But other promised features such as matchmaking aren’t yet present, and some heavy network traffic has made accessing the game’s servers a game of chance so far. When everything is up and running, though, the actual act of racing online is a pretty smooth one.

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Donkey Kong Country Returns
For: Wii
From: Retro Studios/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

If you played any of the three “Donkey Kong Country” games on the Super NES during the mid-1990s, the surface of the aptly-named “Donkey Kong Country Returns” should look exactly as you envision it would.

Superficially, it’s a natural evolution. The “DKC” trilogy produced three of the better sidescrolling action games on the SNES, and while the faux-3D graphics have aged, the games still play well. “Returns” puts 15 years of graphical and technological advancements to good use: Everything is modeled in real 3D despite the mostly two-dimensional perspective, and the levels can twist around and play with space in ways those old games couldn’t possibly do. But the core action — running, jumping, ground-pounding, barrel blasting and even riding the mine cart and Rambi the rhino — hasn’t changed.

Though a little more risk-taking wouldn’t have hurt, “Returns” at least does the next best thing by putting those familiar ideas to some pretty clever use in environments that, thanks to technology, are much livelier than their SNES counterparts. Some stretches of action operate on dual planes of perspective, and levels frequently feature outside forces (a trigger-happy pirate ship, a ridable whale, lava geysers) that change the tenor of the action without introducing new controls or gimmicks. Every level has hidden rooms with bonus collectables, and “Returns” rewards the truly ambitious by unlocking fiendishly difficult bonus levels in each world in which players find everything.

Finding all those bonuses is by no means an easy task. In fact, simply seeing “Returns” to its conclusion wouldn’t be a guarantee if Nintendo hadn’t included an optional feature that allows the overwhelmed to “skip” levels by letting the computer finish up for them. For all the right reasons, this is a tough game that, true to its predecessors, demands real skill from its players and only holds hands as a last, slightly demoralizing resort.

But “Returns” is challenging for the wrong reasons too. Mid-level checkpoints are often placed in strange spots, requiring players to replay simple, lengthy stretches of certain levels just to get back to the tricky part that tripped them up. Sometimes, those checkpoints outfit players with Diddy Kong, who rides on Donkey’s back, wears a jetpack that makes jumping easier, and gives players two extra life bars. But sometimes it doesn’t, and players have to replay those stretches without him and hope Donkey’s two bars and regular jump are enough.

But the game’s worst offense is its wedging of motion controls where they don’t belong. Players shake the Wii remote to make Donkey Kong roll forward, bash the ground or blow, and the game determines which action to execute based on whether Donkey Kong is standing still, ducking or moving. But sometimes Donkey Kong’s momentum keeps him moving after players stop moving him, and that’s enough for a remote shake to send him rolling off a cliff instead of bonking the enemy in front of him. In a game as frantic as this, that’s a “mistake” you will make, and considering how many buttons go unused, it’s a mind-boggling oversight that adds unneeded aggravation to a game that’s tricky enough already.

That “Returns” remains worth playing in spite of these aggravations is a testament to all it does right versus all it does wrong. And you need not suffer alone: “Returns” offers two-player local co-op play, though it doesn’t address the disparity between the player who gets to control Diddy’s jetpack and the one who is stuck with Donkey’s plain-jane jump.

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Spelunker HD
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Tozai/Irem
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $10

Not everybody played “Spelunker” when it debuted on the NES in 1987, but those who did have a special remembrance of the cave-dwelling platforming game that was fiendishly, unforgivingly difficult from its very first minute. “Spelunker HD” swaps in a cute new look and gives the iconic (for “Spelunker” fans, anyway) music a jazzy makeover. But while the ability to save progress takes a little of the edge off, the absurd lack of forgiveness is exactly as it was 23 years ago, and it isn’t there by accident or because the developers don’t recognize how cruel it can be. Instead of striving for accessibility and pleading for wider appeal, “Spelunker HD” feels like a joyous celebration of “Spelunker’s” difficulty, and for fans and conquerers of that nasty old game, the spotless return to that world is supremely fulfilling. “Spelunker HD” instead modernizes itself in other, better ways: There are 100 new levels (the original game had six, to put that number into perspective), and the game now allows up to four (splitscreen) or six (online) players to share the same cavern as they work together or complete to collect the most treasure. The new look and sound nicely toe the line between contemporary and deferential, but “Spelunker HD” lets players opt for the original music and graphical style (retrofitted new environments and all) if they prefer to suffer like it’s 1987.


Games 11/23/10: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, Sonic Colors, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, sexual themes, strong language, violence)

Don’t be fooled by the quick turnaround, spinoff-like title or emphasis on multiplayer. “Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood” is, in every respect but its packaging, a full-blown and fully worthy sequel to last year’s “Assassin’s Creed II.”

Ubisoft made such hay about “Brotherhood’s” multiplayer that the unsuspecting might mistakingly think it’s the game’s main dish. Turns out, it isn’t.

But the hay is justified. Backed by its own side story, “Brotherhood’s” multiplayer stars players as test assassins, and the goal of a typical match is to assassinate another player while eluding the player (or, in team play, group) whose assignment is to assassinate you.

The multiplayer maps are populated with A.I. people, some of whom closely resemble players’ character models, and the game leaves players free to decide how to attack, elude and hide in plain sight. The freedom to employ stealth tactics — and, in the process, attempt to fool other players by mimicking computer-controlled characters — adds a brilliant layer of psychology to what otherwise are traditional rules of multiplayer engagement. Players who traditionally are slow on the trigger can still rule a match by out-scheming their less observant adversaries.

“Brotherhood” implements a terrific experience points system that rewards players for making savvy kills, and those who level up receive access to new tricks that open the door to even more elaborate plots. All tallied up, it’s a terrifically original slant on multiplayer, with a great rewards system to match.

And it’s merely a companion piece to one of the year’s best single-player games.

“Brotherhood” resumes the intertwining stories of Desmond Miles (present day) and Ezio Auditore da Firenze (16th Century Italy) exactly where “AC2” left them, and the game’s first twist finds Desmond heading to the present-day incarnation of Ezio’s Villa while, in the 16th Century, Ezio watches it fall into ruin as he flees to Rome.

The new setting marks the first time a “Creed” game has taken place almost entirely in a single city, but “Brotherhood” more than compensates by making Rome monstrously large, freely explorable and loaded with mandatory and elective missions that increase in variety as the story advances. Chipping away at the Borgia’s rule allows Ezio to increase his influence, take the reigns of Rome’s economy and, eventually, assemble an uprising of assassins to take down the overlords for good.

The Assassin’s Guild is the most significant change to the “Creed” storyline formula, and it’s a surprisingly welcome one. “Brotherhood” lets players manage recruited assassins in a menu system that makes it easy to level them up and send them on missions across Europe, and the ratio of engagement to user-friendliness makes for a fun investment that never diverts too much attention from the primary gameplay.

The real treat, though, comes from being able to call those assassins into battle whenever they aren’t away on assignment. Ezio can fight alongside them or use them to flank or distract enemies while he hones in on the primary target, and while an excessive reliance on the assassins can get them killed, “Brotherhood” leaves players free to deploy them when and how they please.

“Brotherhoods'” storyline matches “AC2’s” in terms of length and importance in the timeline, and while Desmond doesn’t get as much face time as he did in “AC2,” players finally get a chance to control him for a meaningful length of time. Both characters’ lives take major turns in the final act, too, so if you loved “AC2” and plan to play “Assassin’s Creed III,” this seemingly innocuous offshoot is not to be overlooked.

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Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows PC
From: Criterion/DICE/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

“Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit” finds the creators of “Burnout” not only playing in another racing franchise’s yard for the first time, but finds them refreshing what arguably was that series’ finest hour.

Predictably, compromises have been made in the rebooted “Hot Pursuit,” with facets from both brands now sharing the same road.

But the compromise doesn’t feel like a compromise so much as the best of two very good worlds. Like a typical “Need for Speed” game, “Pursuit” comes loaded with real, licensed cars from the likes of Porsche, Lamorghini and Pagani. The on-track action, particularly once the fastest car class is unlocked, is as blistering as a typical “Burnout” game, and the crashes and takedowns are every bit as spectacular. But the weightiness of the cars (and their subsequent ability to withstand more damage without crashing) feels more like “Need for Speed.”

The choices made between speed, weight and durability are of no trivial importance to “Pursuit,” which gets its name by letting players play from both sides of a nasty highway battle between street racers and cops (who, wonderfully, have access to police cruisers that are as exotically branded as what the racers drive).

“Pursuit’s” single-player component divides its events between both sides, and in a move that will dishearten anyone who enjoys “Need for Speed’s” B-movie storytelling, it opts for the “Burnout” approach of just letting players jump into events without narrative provocation.

Some of those events — too many, in fact — are racing game staples. Street races and time trials are prevalent on the street racing side, while the cop side has duels against racers and a time trial variant that also prioritizes mistake-free driving.

The game’s speed and polish make all these events perfectly fun, but they still pale in comparison to Hot Pursuit mode, which pit a squad of cops against a sextet of street racers who, in addition to taking on the cops, are competing with each another to win the race.

“Pursuit” spices up the mode — which is available online (eight players) as well as in the single-player portion — by providing both sides some tools of sabotage (spike strips, roadblocks, EMPs, radar jammers, even a police helicopter) that add a nice layer of strategy to the mayhem. But with or without those tricks, the freewheeling chaos of the mode, and how perfectly it meshes legitimate racing with combat and dual layers of competition, easily stands alone as the game’s hallmark feature. “Pursuit’s” single-player component regularly offers new Hot Pursuit events to play, but not nearly as many as it should have in relation to all those other modes that can be found in just about any street racing game.

In lieu of a storyline, “Pursuit’s” flashy interface award instead goes to the Autolog, a game-wide social networking system that allows players to post messages and photos, see how their event times stack up against friends’ times, get alerts when friends beat their times and, of course, instigate online competitions. The omnipresent (but never intrusive) nature of the Autolog makes it a terrific benefit for those who have friends also playing the game, but for those who don’t, this comes at the expense of global leaderboards. It would’ve been nice if “Pursuit” had an optional (if less functionally impressive) global or regional Autolog that allowed those who lack the friends to still have a cut of the experience.

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< strong>Sonic Colors
Reviewed for: Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Sonic Team/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

Someone at Sonic Team finally received the memo stating that Sonic the Hedgehog’s adventures would be better off without the towns, humans, exploratory levels, werewolf transformations, cars, guns and every other misfit idea the studio has tried to implement since the series went 3D 11 years ago. They also read that memo, which is why “Sonic Colors” cuts the fat, lets Sonic be Sonic, and emerges as his best three-dimensional outing ever.

At the same time, parts of that memo appear to have been smudged, because “Colors,” for all its improvements, still has some familiar aggravations that may, even in the face of fresh goodwill, ruin whatever plans you had to enjoy the game.

But first, the good news: “Colors” marks a return to franchise purity, with Sonic sprinting from end to end, collecting rings, jumping into enemies, and using the usual contraptions to blow through levels while avoiding spikes, bottomless pits and other traps. There’s a story, but it stays surprisingly on point, and it doesn’t require Sonic and friends to engage in any weird extracurricular activities that bring the action to a painful crawl.

The only real gimmick “Colors” has is the scattering of alien creatures who, in return for Sonic’s attempts to liberate them, give Sonic the ability to briefly transform into (among other forms) a rocket, laser beam or obstacle-devouring force of nature. But these transformations are ingrained into the core game, and they don’t disrupt the action so much as give it an occasional, temporary dose of variety.

Perhaps the best news about “Colors” is that, finally, Sonic Team has figured out how to frame a 3D “Sonic” game. The camera zooms further out than in the past, and the game takes the reigns to continually keep it trained on Sonic in ways that make sense. Compared to the schizophrenic cameras of “Sonic” games’ past, and how thoroughly they could sabotage player progress, this alone makes “Colors” the best 3D “Sonic” game of all time.

But while the born-again camera may finally be blameless for players’ failings, the loose controls are as guilty as ever. “Colors'” levels are full of spots that demand precise platforming, but Sonic’s footing is slippery, his jump is limp, his double jump is both weak and unwieldy, and the completely unpredictable effects of his dash maneuver make it totally unreliable when a long jump toward a short platform is in order. Some of “Colors'” later stages would be beasts even if Sonic had Super Mario’s nimbleness, and they come off as cheap when they demand ballet from a character who couldn’t tiptoe down a grocery store aisle without knocking something over. Gaming masochists will love it, and they’ll appreciate the way “Colors” encourages multiple playthroughs by grading performance and dangling special collectibles in hard-to-reach places, but regular players might find the will to continue totally sapped after a string of cheap deaths.

“Colors” takes place inside an amusement park, and its appetite for bright colors and lights makes it a visual feast. The game supports numerous input styles — remote, nunchuck, classic/Gamecube controllers — and even lets players play as their Mii in a handful of special challenge levels. Those challenge levels also let two players play simultaneously, but while co-op “Sonic” is a novel idea, the action is a little too haphazard for this to capture the same lightning “New Super Mario Bros.” bottled last year.

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Pac-Man Championship Edition DX
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network and Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

After 27 years of playing it safe with spinoffs, retreads and cameos, Namco blew the doors off the barn with a true sequel, “Pac-Man Championship Edition,” that rewrote the “Pac-Man” script without changing the tenants that made it the most popular video game ever made. “Pac-Man Championship Edition DX” takes that blueprint, refines it, and douses it with sprinkles. The base game has changed: Mazes now crawl with dozens of ghosts instead of four, but all but a few rogue ghosts will follow Pac-Man in formation, making their movements easy to predict. “DX” counters the crowded mazes by giving Pac-Man a limited-use bomb to briefly clear his path, and it sends the action into a very brief fit of slow motion whenever Pac heads toward peril. Such lifesavers sound like game-breakers on paper, but they quickly become indispensable once it becomes apparent just how ridiculously fast the game gets as players increase their score. (Happily, “DX’s” outstanding control responsiveness never loses a step even when the speed is out of control.) “DX” increase the maze design count from two to 10, lets players dress those mazes in multiple audiovisual styles, and adds new free play, ghost combo and time trial modes. The only downside: The achievements/trophies are entirely too easy to unlock this time, and while every mode of every maze gets its own leaderboard, there’s no at-a-glance way to see how you stack up against your friends.


Games 11/16/10: Goldeneye 007, Kinect Sports, MotionSports, Fighters Uncaged, The Fight: Lights Out, Superstars V8 Racing

Goldeneye 007
For: Wii
From: Eurocom/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

We’ve seen classic first-person shooters get reissues with slightly sharper graphics and slightly modernized controls. But “Goldeneye 007” represents the first time a publisher has brought a cherished shooter through the nostalgia wall and fully into the present, and the result is an extraordinary mix of old and new that feels startlingly fresh.

For starters, let’s be clear: This isn’t a simple cleaning up of the classic Nintendo 64 game. The new “Goldeneye” is a new game that adds new layers to the storyline (now starring Daniel Craig instead of Pierce Brosnan), parlays those layers into new environments, and uses the old set pieces as inspiration for new mission designs rather than for purposes of copying and pasting. Modern amenities — destructible environments, regenerating health on lower difficulties, the customary visual improvements and all they bring — make their presence felt, but its the way the game spins revered levels into new experiences that shines brighter.

At the same time, “Goldeneye” does not forsake its roots. Dispatching enemies stealthily — a game-changer back in 1997 — remains fun in 2010, in no small part because of “Goldeneye’s” immense gun selection and multilayered level design. But at no point does “Goldeneye” punish players who would prefer to recklessly run, gun and punch their way through. Most modern shooters do, and “Goldeneye’s” ability to retain its old-fashioned values while modernizing most everything else is perhaps its most impressive achievement. Other little touches — neutralized enemies fade away here the same way they did out of technical necessity on the N64 — provide undeniable winks without running interference on players who have no connection to the original game.

Technically speaking, “Goldeneye” looks good for a Wii game and certainly covers its bases in terms of controls. The remote/nunchuck combination works terrifically, very rarely confusing the need to adjust the gun’s aim with the need to turn, and the game includes a variant that caters to the Wii Zapper accessory. But those who want to play “Goldeneye” a little more traditionally (albeit with dual sticks, something the N64 lacked) can use the Classic or Gamecube controllers to do so.

“Goldeneye’s” campaign runs roughly twice as long as most of its contemporaries — a nod, intentional or not, to the days when first-person shooters prioritized length and elaborate level design over cutscenes and corridors.

But “Goldeneye’s” legendary status was built on the back of its multiplayer, and Eurocom’s successful replication of that will ultimately define this game as well.

True to form, “Goldeneye” includes four-player splitscreen, and the playable characters (Oddjob, Jaws, Julius No), modes (deathmatch, team deathmatch, Golden Gun) and modifiers (melee only, tiny players, paintball, invisibility) return from the original.

But “Goldeneye’s” online multiplayer (eight players) elevates this to the arguable top of the Wii’s first-person shooter heap. The lack of voice chat support for Nintendo’s neglected Wii Speak peripheral is disappointing, and the welcome ability to form four-player parties is still hampered on the ground floor by Nintendo’s clumsy friend code system. But players who want to just jump in and play some lag-free online “Goldeneye” finally can do so, and Eurocom rewards those who do with an experience points system that doles out better weapons and gadgets as players level up. Online multiplayer also takes advantage of the higher player count to add some new modes centered around team and objective-based play.

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Kinect Sports
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect Required)
From: Rare/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild cartoon violence)

MotionSports
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect Required)
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild violence)

Time will tell just how capable Kinect is as a full-body motion control device, but one thing is clear right now: No matter how good the hardware is, it always will bow at the mercy of its software.

Witness, for instance, the six sports (soccer, football, horseback riding, hang glinding, boxing, skiing) of “MotionSports,” which takes those sports and mostly doles them out in pieces. The soccer section has penalty kick and goaltending minigames, for instance, while the football section has challenges that test passing, running and kicking, but neither provides anything close to a replication of the full sport.

The bite-sized portions wouldn’t be such a big deal if “MotionSports” didn’t bog itself down in load screens and multiple menu tiers every time players complete or even attempt to just restart a minigame. Players will spend as much time waiting as they will playing because of how inelegant the interface is.

But the real problem with the simple games is that they should be able to handle their undemanding tasks far better than they do. Kicking a soccer ball or football is literally hit or miss, with the game regularly ignoring kicks and, if players take one step back too many, stopping the action entirely. The passing game offers no sense of control whatsoever, while boxing and horse riding feel as laggy and gesture-dependent as a bad Wii game from three years ago. Skiing and hang gliding work better, but they’re also the least demanding games, asking players to perform soft motions or simply lean instead of do anything intensive. The experience they provide over playing with a standard controller is negligible.

Perhaps we could blame the system and not “MotionSports” if its counterpart didn’t profoundly shame it, but that’s exactly what “Kinect Sports” does.

For starters, “Kinect Sports” presents more complete recreations of its offerings (soccer, beach volleyball, table tennis, bowling, boxing and five track and field events). Only soccer feels at all abstract, because players only pass, kick and block, but it’s still a regulation game of soccer instead of a tray of samples.

More than that, though, the games just work like they should. Boxing provides full fist control instead of just recognizing a few gestures, and while table tennis and bowling initially feel awkward due to there being nothing to physically hold, their abilities to recognize speed and spin quickly make playing them second nature. Volleyball easily differentiates between bumps, sets, spikes and even different types of serves, and the absence of lag makes it easy to execute outstanding long jumps and javelin throws without fouling or compromising the approach. “Kinect Sports” offers a tutorial for each sport, but it didn’t need to, and there’s no better testament to its flexibility and accessibility than that.

“Kinect Sports'” offers a nice single-player progression system, throws in some minigame variants of most sports and runs on an interface that completely outclasses that of “MotionSports.” It also supports four-player online multiplayer, which “MotionSports” omitted completely. (Both games have four-player offline multiplayer.) The Wii’s dearth of online-enabled motion games may be the unfortunate standard, but on a system that counts Xbox Live among its essential features, the expectations are higher.

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Fighters Uncaged
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

T
he Fight: Lights Out
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, simulated gambling, violence)

Hand-to-hand combat was an obvious motion game idea even when the Wii was in its infancy, and it makes significantly more sense with the added fidelity of the Playstation Move and Kinect.

On paper, “Fighters Uncaged” enjoys the early advantage, because in addition to fists, the Kinect can recognize different kinds of kicks, blocks and even a head butt. It’s a point the game drives home during an elongated opening training session that needlessly isolates each move inside its own tutorial.

The wealth of attacks is impressive, but it also demonstrates how overdesigned parts of “Uncaged’s” fighting system are. The game uses a three-tiered visual indicator to communicate how close the fighters are standing to each other, and the cluster of similar moves causes the game to rely on gesture recognition rather than use true full-body motion to assess the source, power, speed and location of an attack. The game also slows down and uses additional visual cues whenever it wants players to act defensively — perhaps a concession for a bizarre, diagonal camera angle that makes it hard to discern that stuff more naturally.

Naturally, it all falls apart once the tutorial safety is off. The concessions hamper the experience without compensating for “Uncaged’s” shortcomings with regard to recognizing specific moves or even any move at all. Taking damage because the game fails to act on your motions is entirely too common. “Uncaged’s” lifeless presentation — no character customization, crushingly repetitive single-player progression against a tiny roster of fighters — put the burden on the novelty of its controls, but those controls fall entirely too short for that not to backfire.

“The Fight: Lights Out” isn’t exactly spotless either, and the obvious downside is that, while the two required Move wands nicely double as fists, there’s no way to add kicking to the arsenal like “Uncaged” can. (An optional head-tracking feature also is best ignored, because it just doesn’t work.)

But while “The Fight” only has a fraction of the arsenal, it does more with it than “Uncaged” does with the entire palette. The level of control over each arm is still a little unwieldily — particularly early on before players can upgrade their fighter’s stamina — but it’s noticeably more fluid and never feels gesture-dependent. Your arms will sometimes flail wildly, and you’ll occasionally punch the other guy’s shoulder instead of his face, but a fumbled motion is miles better than an ignored one.

“The Fight’s” seamless action provides a better workout than “Uncaged” does, and the interface is better at rewarding players within the game as well. A surprisingly polished career mode allows players to train and fight at their own pace. And because the game centers around underground fights, players can bet in-game money (which pays for training sessions and gear) on the outcome and nature (clean or dirty) of their bouts. The career mode lets players design their own fighter — something “Uncaged” bafflingly omits — and the seedy presentation allows for touches (a desaturated high-contrast graphical presentation, a live-action Danny Trejo as the game’s mentor) that give it distinction and a welcome tongue-in-cheek quality.

“The Fight” also owns an advantage for its inclusion of local and online (two players each) multiplayer. Players also can watch and bet on other players’ bouts. “Uncaged,” by contrast, is completely multiplayer-free — an foreseeable move, considering the awkward camera angle, but also a final, inarguable indictment of a game that was underdeveloped in every regard.

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Superstars V8 Racing
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Milestone/O-Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone

No one has benefitted from “Gran Turismo 5’s” legendarily long delay more than O-Games, which, in addition to poking brilliant fun at said delay, has softened the wait in just the right way. “Superstars V8 Racing” does not compare to the forthcoming “GT5” in terms of car roster, track selection, modes or single-player investment. But it has a lot of important bases adequately covered, with a championship mode, a modest handful of scenario challenges, and very customizable race settings for single-player and online multiplayer (12 players). Most important, the on-track action feels like the equivalent of what many $60 racing games get. It looks like a full-priced game, and the cars handle comfortably but feel nice and weighty. “V8” also does a nice job of accommodating players of different disciplines: Though it doesn’t run as deep as “Turismo,” it allows knowledgable players to tune cars to their liking and ride purely, while also allowing those who want a more arcadey experience to turn on assists, turn off penalties, deactivate damage and ride as dangerously as they please. The flexibility carries over to online play, where hosts can set parameters according to their preferred discipline. If “V8” develops a following, it could be a good online destination for serious and not-so-serious racing fans alike.


Games 11/9/10: FlingSmash + Wii Remote Plus, Power Gig: Rise of the SixString, Rock Band 3, Shaun White Skateboarding, Dream Chronicles

FlingSmash + Wii Remote Plus
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

It’s slightly amusing the way “FlingSmash” exclaims on its box that the $40 Wii Remote Plus peripheral that’s bundled inside this $50 package is a free bonus rather than the main draw. But it also says something about “FlingSmash,” which feels like a more complete game than the $10 games Nintendo previously bundled with other similar peripherals.

First, a note about the Wii Remote Plus: In terms of function, it does nothing the Wii remote didn’t previously do with the MotionPlus attachment connected. But it’s a clear upgrade in terms of form, with the MotionPlus’ functionality now bundled into a remote that’s no bigger and no heavier than the original Wii remote. If you’re in the market for a new controller, this is the most elegant solution available.

The controller is available by itself for $10 less than the “FlingSmash” bundle costs, and there’s some irony in Nintendo bundling it with a game that requires MotionPlus technology but is more unwieldy than a lot of Wii games that released before that technology even was available.

But with trial, error and understanding, “FlingSmash” proves to be more fun and more durable than its throwaway price would imply.

“FlingSmash” adheres to the Nintendo storytelling template — cute kingdom in crisis, cute character (Zip, a Kirby-shaped creature with a wild smile and goofy haircut) called on to save the day — but it plays more like “Breakout” than Nintendo’s other sidescrolling platformers. Rather than control Zip (or, if you prefer, his ladyfriend Pip) directly, players swing the remote to fling him toward blocks, gems and other stuff in order to clear a path forward and rack up a high score along the way. Zip bounces off blocks and walls like a pinball, players volley him back like a tennis ball, and the general object is to clear out as much of a level as possible, collect some medallions (that eventually unlock each world’s boss level), and not let the scrolling level trap Zip out of moving forward.

The biggest problem with this unusual control scheme is the game’s failure to show players how best to wield it. “FlingSmash” gives off the impression that holding the remote any old way and swinging it freely will produce a precise, intended result, and perhaps a remote with all this tech built in should do exactly that. But Zip is significantly easier to aim if you hold the remote flat, buttons facing up, and swing it horizontally, and “FlingSmash” is much more fun when he goes exactly where you want him to go.

For those who really dive in, it proves to be a surprisingly fulfilling game as well. “FlingSmash” has eight worlds, each with three levels and a boss fight, and while simply getting through the story takes only a few hours, getting the top ranking on each level is a fun and legitimately challenging endeavor. Getting good scores also unlocks some competitive and cooperative minigames for two players, who also can team up to complete the main campaign together.

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Power Gig: Rise of the SixString
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Seven45 Studios
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

Rock Band 3
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
From: Harmonix/MTV Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes, use of alcohol)

Naysayers love to remind people that, for the price of most music game bundles, players could purchase and learn to play a real instrument.

That admittedly attractive notion makes the debut of “Power Gig: Rise of the SixString” an intriguing development for wannabe guitarists, because while “SixString” is compatible with the plastic instruments you may already own, the guitar bundle ships with a controller that doubles as a real six-string guitar.

But “SixString” errs rather than soars by maintaining such close compatibility with “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero’s” controllers. Instead of changing the game or bridging the gap between game and teaching tool, it just feels like the same old game style with a controller that isn’t tailored to it. Strumming strings instead of a plastic strum bar definitely counts as an upgrade, but while pressing those strings into sensors might look better than pressing a bunch of colored buttons to play notes in the game, it’s nowhere near as intuitive and doesn’t parlay the extra necessary effort into anything educational.

“SixString’s” other tweaks feel similarly misguided. The presentation of falling notes feels changed for the sake if change, and its smaller presence on the screen does the player no favor. Similarly, while the drumming peripheral wasn’t available for review, its design — four motion-detecting sensors instead of any pads to hit — appears to contradict all the noise Seven45 Studios has made about the importance of playing with a real guitar. Finally, while the game supports three-player local multiplayer, the omission of online play is a sore thumb when the competition has been including it for years.

With that said, “SixString” does feature a 70-track playlist and a pretty goofily enjoyable story mode in which to experience those songs. The interface is a downgrade from its competition, but perhaps not so much that the standalone game wouldn’t be attractive to players who already own some instrument controllers and just want new songs the play.

“SixString’s” hedging looks especially unfortunate in light of the release of “Rock Band 3,” which bests all comers as a game and eats “SixString’s” lunch when it comes to closing the toy/instrument gap.

Though it shares interface similarities with the traditional “Rock Band” gameplay, “RB3’s” new Pro Mode replaces the colors with actual notes. And while the guitar peripheral needed to enjoy this mode makes no bones about being a controller, it’s designed in a way that emulates a real guitar in this context better than the real thing does in “SixString.”

The Pro Mode features multiple difficulty settings, and the lower settings allow total novices to gather some understanding of guitar science before parlaying that into a serious crash course on the harder settings. It still isn’t the same as playing the real thing, but it significantly narrows the gap.

The downside, of course, is that to fully enjoy “RB3,” you need to pay for the privilege. At roughly $150, Mad Catz’s 102-button pro guitar controller isn’t cheap. Nor is the new wireless keyboard accessory, which, along with a persistent career mode that awards progress no matter what mode players are in, provides “RB3” with its other big headlining feature additions.

Additionally, while the two-octave keyboard is a terrific fit both in regular and Pro Mode gameplay, many of “RB3’s” 83 tracks (to say nothing of all those songs you’ve accumulated from previous games) lack a keyboard track. If you want to assemble a healthy library of keyboard-enabled songs, be prepared to fork over yet more money to purchase downloadable tracks as they become available.

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Shaun White Skateboarding
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

The most ironic thing about “Shaun White Skateboarding” is that the less it resembles a skateboarding game, the more fun it is.

More than no
t, that’s also the best thing about it, because for roughly two-thirds of its story mode, “White” almost completely abandons the tenants of a serious skateboarding game in favor of something that’s basically a platforming adventure game on a skateboard.

“White’s” fictional universe has been rendered grey and dull by an all-powerful corporate ministry, and players are tasked with literally bringing color and life back to the world by injecting it with flow, which bleeds into the world via tricks performed on the skateboard. “White” doesn’t even try to explain how this science works, and that’s for the best: The story is silly fun, and if it provides the excuse needed for a pretty original visual trick, so be it.

For most of the way, the missions in “White” feel like objectives from a platforming game instead of a hardcore skating sim, and it’s to the game’s benefit. “White’s” physics are absurdly generous — players have to really work to fall off the board, and executing 1080s is easier here than turning 360s is in “Skate” — and that allows the game to formulate objectives that are less about pulling off angle-perfect tricks and more about canvassing levels vertically as well as horizontally.

The vertical skating easily is “White’s” best trick. Certain rails, ramps and streets extend holographically as players skate on them, and during the second half of the game, players can shape these rails and streets to form their own paths through the air. Connecting a series of holographic rails and circling a level without ever touching the ground is terrific fun, and “White’s” finest moments take place when it designs objectives around these mechanics. Halfway through the game, players have to race a helicopter by shaping rails and maintaining the high ground, and the chase, to say nothing its culmination, is one of the cooler things ever to happen on a video game skateboard.

But “White” eventually suffers a crisis of confidence. It tries its hand at real skateboarding objectives, and it doles out time-limited missions that demand more from players than a game with physics and controls this loose should demand. On a dime, fun turns to frustration, the generous difficultly curve turns cheap, and all that was forgivable about “White’s” unusual take on skateboarding suddenly stops making sense. Skilled players will persevere, and “White” awards those who do with the awesome ability to create shapable rails on the fly and traverse enormous gaps. But the stark change of mood and the hassle needed to overcome it will aggravate many into just giving up, cutting their losses and moving on.

Sadly, “White’s” multiplayer component (eight players online, two locally) offers little solace. The score, shape and territorial challenges are nicely designed, and there’s a free skate mode for those willing to endure the minor hassle needed to unlock it. But “White’s” online servers have been mostly barren so far, and unless the game enjoys an unprecedented upswing in post-release activity, they’re bound to stay that way. Well-designed or not, there’s nothing these modes can do if competitors refuse to show.

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Dream Chronicles
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Also available for: Nintendo DS, Windows PC, Macintosh, iPhone/iPod Touch
From: KatGames/Hudson
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s entirely fitting that “Dream Chronicles” got lost this fall among the sea of big-ticket Xbox Live Arcade games that released around it, and not just because it’s a game centered around finding proverbial needles in proverbial haystacks. “Chronicles” is a hidden-object game — which, for the uninitiated, presents players with mostly static environments and tasks them with finding items hidden within the scene that help complete whatever task is needed to advance to the next scene. At that, “Chronicles” does fine, mixing in object hunts with the occasional light puzzle-solving diversion and wrapping it inside a story that, while kind of incomprehensible, is engaging in a strangely soothing way. But object hunts are an odd fit for a system that operates on the strength of a controller rather than a mouse, and while “Chronicles” cleverly lets players “peek” into the scene with the triggers, using a joystick to move a cursor around will always feel awkward. “Chronicles” also is too short and too easy to command the same asking price as “Super Meat Boy” and four tables of “Pinball FX 2,” to name only two recent XBLA games that provide more value and take much better advantage of the system’s strengths. The same game is available for less money on platforms that suit it better, so if the game intrigues you, leave this version be and shop around.


Games 10/19/10: Kirby's Epic Yarn, Medal of Honor, Dead Space Ignition

Kirby’s Epic Yarn
For: Wii
From: Good-Feel/HAL Laboratory/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

The smiling pink blob known as Kirby has never not been adorable, but “Kirby’s Epic Yarn” very literally takes video game cuteness to an entirely new plane.

“Yarn” plays like most Kirby games, insofar that it’s a sidescrolling platformer in which Kirby waddles, jumps, smacks enemies and uses his uniquely flexible chemistry to transform into alternate forms that allow access to otherwise inaccessible areas.

Instead of a squishy blob, though, “Yarn” transforms Kirby, his friends and adversaries into outlines constructed entirely from yarn, buttons and bits of fabric. That goes as well for the entire game world, which is constructed almost exclusively from cloth. (The story, narrated with all the sweetness of a children’s bedtime tale, explains everything.)

“Yarn” succeeds on the novelty of this presentation because it looks awesome and doesn’t break the illusion when in motion. Jumping on a felt platform causes it to sag ever so slightly like the real thing would, and Kirby can pull on certain buttons to stretch or contract the cloth backdrop and subsequently alter the game world. Some pathways even allow Kirby to access areas behind the fabric — a trick presented amusingly by showing Kirby as a bulge pushing the backdrop around.

But “Yarn” thrives, like so many other Nintendo platformers previously have, by parlaying the gimmick into a stream of clever ideas that transcend novelty. Kirby can swing from a button’s loose thread, wrap a string around a spool to raise the terrain, and transform into a string himself to thread a maze of corridors. His all-yarn composition allows him to transfer into everything from a firetruck to a rocket-firing mech for various challenges, and the aforementioned stretch/contract effect gets put to great use in levels that emphasize exploration.

The exploration is a pretty big deal for players who like a challenge, because if “Yarn” has a hangup, it’s the doormat difficulty. Players who simply strive to complete the story will face very little resistance in doing so, because Kirby’s inability to even die means a power failure is the only way not to complete a level. The game’s challenge comes from achieving gold medal scores on each level, picking them clean of hidden collectibles, unlocking bonus levels and completing those with similar aptitude. Even doing all that isn’t exactly a mountainous challenge, but it’s the only way to get “Yarn” to show any teeth, and some teeth are better than none if it incentivizes skilled players to experience what otherwise is a gem of a game.

“Yarn” allows two players to team up (one as Kirby, the other as sidekick Prince Fluff, but both with the same abilities) in simultaneous local co-op play, which serves simply to allow two players to enjoy the game together. The composition and difficulty of the levels do not change or scale.

Many of the aforementioned collectables also double as furniture players can use to decorate Kirby’s new apartment and surroundings. (Again, the story explains.) “Yarn’s” decorating module is almost entirely skippable for players who have no interest in such things, but it’s a cute and harmless diversion, and those who play around with it will open up a few additional challenges to complete. The act of decorating is a pretty low-maintenance affair, so those who simply want the extra challenges can rest assured that getting them isn’t much of a hassle.

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Medal of Honor
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Danger Close/DICE/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)

The new, subtitle-free “Medal of Honor” can signify all it wants that it’s a new beginning, but make no mistake: If you’ve played a warfare game in the last few years — “Battlefield: Bad Company” and “Modern Warfare” most especially — then you’ve seen this before.

Don’t automatically confuse that for a swipe against the game, which has a consistently entertaining (though rarely exemplary) single-player campaign and a strong (if loosely familiar) multiplayer component. The groundings in real-world Afghanistan give it a hook the other games lack, and while “Honor’s” dabbles in fiction with its storyline, it displays a reverence for its soldiers that’s eluded the war shooter genre since it abandoned World War II.

But seriously, you’ve done this before. “Honor” throws players into the usual FUBAR scenarios that pop up in war games with creative liberty at their feet, so expect to be ambushed a few times and pinned down while fighting a Taliban force that has 10 soldiers for your every one. Expect, also, to dodge gunfire on an ATV, man a turret gun in an Apache, call in laser-guided airstrikes, pick snipers off a mountain range and stalk Taliban in pitch blackness with the assistance of night vision goggles.

But while “Honor” doesn’t innovate on what comprises a good war game, it at least imitates capably. It’s mechanically sound and smart about rotating between traditional and diversionary missions, and outside of some segments in which scripted A.I. forces players to play a certain way or die trying, it flashes some smart enemy and ally intelligence. Most segments have a tendency to last a few minutes or enemies longer than they should, but there isn’t a mission in the bunch that stands out as a dud. “Honor” is derivative fun, but it’s solid fun nonetheless from credit roll to credit roll.

“Honor’s” online multiplayer (24 players) is unique insofar that a different developer — DICE, of “Battlefield” fame — built it using a different engine than was used for the campaign. But outside of a few odd discrepancies this creates — the interface and overall design are trivially but noticeably different, and certain single-player commands (sliding into cover, going prone) aren’t available in multiplayer — it follows the template pretty faithfully. The basic controls are the same, and the modes are, while designed around the Afghanistan war theatre, hardly foreign to anyone with fresh memories of any recent war shooter.

That’s not much of a surprise: DICE designed “Honor’s” multiplayer using “Battlefield’s” engine and amid a slew of “Battlefield” projects, so it stands to reason that the tempo of the action and robustness of the graphics, sound and controls are reminiscent of the genre’s best series.

Also, while it’s easy to dismiss “Honor” as “Battlefield’s” weird little half-brother, there’s merit in what’s happened here. “Honor’s” firefights take place on maps that are smaller and tighter than those found in “Battlefield,” but the threshold for survival — a few seconds, one wrong move into the open and a few bullets at moderate range — remains dangerously thin. The premium on tight spaces and cover gives “Honor” plenty in common with “Modern Warfare,” but that thinner threshold will brutalize players who run and gun here like they do in that game. That’s a level of punishment that should have seasoned players in need of a new challenge jumping in head-first. (The rest of you, be warned: If you want to succeed here, you’d best come prepared.)

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Dead Space Ignition
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Sumo Digital/Visceral Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)
Price: $5 standalone, free with “Dead Space 2” pre-order

It’s officially trendy now f
or publishers to precede the release of a big-budget game with an inexpensive, downloadable not-quite prequel. But “Dead Space Ignition” represents the weirdest venture into this territory thus far. Nowhere near a third-person horror shooter like the upcoming “Dead Space 2,” “Ignition” instead is a series of hacking mini-games glued together by a motion comic-powered storyline that partially sets the table for “DS2.” Though gifted with good voice acting, “Ignition’s” animation looks a bit drab even by the loose definition of motion comic animation, and the three mini-game varieties include one that’s enjoyably frantic, one that’s engaging but simple, and one that’s a shoddy tower defense wannabe. That adds up to selection that’s as full of misses as it is hits, which may make “Ignition’s” short length a plus for those who simply want to blow through it and collect the reward (a unlockable suit for main protagonist Isaac to wear in “DS2”). Devoted fans of the “Space” fiction stand to gain the most from “Ignition,” which, in addition to detailing select events from the perspective of new characters, also allows players a small measure of control over the decisions those characters make. That, and the fleeting fun of the two good minigames, makes this a worthy diversion for those who already plan to get “DS2” and consequently get this for free. If you need to pay $5 to play this, you probably have no reason to be playing it.


Games 10/12/10: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, NBA Jam, Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Ninja Theory/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, suggestive themes, violence)

Gaming’s 2010 holiday season is fueled almost entirely by sequels to and remakes of games you’ve already played, so the mere air of mystery surrounding the brand-new “Enslaved: Odyssey to the West” makes its presence welcome by default.

Fortunately, “Enslaved” wholly earns that welcome by telling a fresh story, telling it well, and backing it up with continuously great third-person action.

“Enslaved” stars players as Monkey, a prisoner who escaped a crashing prison ship only to become subservient to another escapee, Trip, who planted a device on Monkey that forces him to obey orders and help Trip return home alive. (The story, in addition to boasting outstanding voice acting and exceptional character and environmental details, pretty capably makes surprising sense of the details behind Monkey’s predicament.)

In case you’re worried: No, this isn’t one long escort mission that requires players to keep a useless sidekick alive. “Enslaved’s” levels occasionally ask players to help Trip safely navigate difficult terrain, but these instances usually play out via well-designed environmental puzzles or very quick combat challenges. And in addition to capably following a few commands (run, distract, heal) and flashing smart A.I., Trip usually can fend for herself when necessary.

Freed from babysitting duty, Monkey proves quite capable himself. “Enslaved’s” core action is a cross between third-person brawling and platforming in the “Uncharted” vein. Fights in wide-open fields against gun-toting mechs borrow tricks from cover-based shooters, and a hoverboard-like device lets Monkey freely surf around certain levels at high speeds.

What elevates all these familiar elements into something unique is the stuff “Enslaved” does with presentation and momentum. Monkey doesn’t stop on a dime when players stop running: Momentum carries him a half-step further, and the camera takes a few additional steps before snapping back. Though jarring and counterintuitive at first, the loose physics allow for more fluid movements in battle and a more exciting presentation of those movements. It doesn’t sound like much, and it has to be experience to be fully understood, but it’s enough to light a noticeable fire under what otherwise is a familiar stable of gameplay staples.

(Worth noting: These ticks don’t apply to climbing, which uses a “sticky” system, a la “Prince of Persia,” that allows players to dart from platform to platform without slowing down for precision’s sake.)

Everything “Enslaved” tries — brawling, climbing, puzzle solving, infiltration, escorting, even a little shooting and more — it does capably at worst and brilliantly at best, and the game does a nice job of rotating those pieces so as to prevent any of them from overstaying their welcome.

This alone would make this an easy game to recommend, but “Enslaved’s” ability to tell a wholly original story with so much care absolutely clinches it. Monkey and Trip are much stronger characters than their original archetypes first imply, and “Enslaved’s” world — a post-apocalyptic America that trades in the usual grey wasteland for a beautifully mossed version of New York City, among other locales — is a treasure trove of engrossing unknowns as well as a feast for the eyes.

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NBA Jam
Reviewed for: Wii
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The tenets of “NBA Jam” never completely disappeared, because “NBA Street” and its ilk offered comparable arcade basketball experiences in the meantime.

But “Jam’s” soul — cartoony players, cheat codes, announcer Tim Kitzrow screaming, “He’s on Fire!” — is as essential to the experience as the game itself, and that soul’s complete return to form after 16 years is what makes this comeback so blissfully welcome.

“Jam” plays now as it did then — entirely too shallow to be confused with “NBA 2K11,” but too dizzyingly fast for that shallowness to matter. Dunks still reign over jumpers, turbo-fueled breakaways remain unstoppable, and shoving players to steal the ball is allowable under a ruleset that cries foul only at brazen goaltending.

Experienced “Jam” players should feel comfortable fairly quickly with the available control schemes, though because this is the Wii, there naturally are some caveats.

“Jam’s” default control scheme finds most commands mapped to the Wii remote and nunchuck in predictable ways. But shooting, dunking and blocking all fall to the remote’s gesture controls, with players flicking upward to jump and downward to finish the action. “Jam” recognizes the gestures flawlessly, and “slamming” the remote to dunk is terrific fun, but don’t be surprised if your brain tricks you into flicking and blocking when you intend to press B to steal. The discrepancy fades away with practice, but it’s jarring initially.

“Jam’s” other schemes are similarly dependable and similarly imperfect. The classic controller support feels more natural at first with the right stick handling shooting and blocking duties, but the clumsiness of having to tether the controller to a Wii remote is, while not the game’s fault, awkward nonetheless. Holding the remote sideways like an NES controller allows players to play like it’s 1994 again, but the D-pad lacks the mobility afforded by a joystick. Those aching for a caveat-free control scheme — to say nothing of online play, which this version doesn’t support — might wish to hold out for “Jam’s” upcoming Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 incarnations.

But even accounting for the control oddities, this is like going home again. In addition to playing like it always has, “Jam” also just feels right. The visual presentation certainly benefits from 16 years of advancements, but player faces remain hilariously digitized, creating a look that’s a delightfully weird mix of high- and low-budget presentation values. Kitzrow doesn’t miss a beat in his resumption of announcing duties, and everything from the menu presentation to the hidden surprises (big head mode, playable politicians) is back like it never left.

The best way to experience “Jam” remains a two-on-two game with three other friends in the same room, but the most pleasant surprise about this incarnation is how much it offers (online play excepted) to those playing alone.

The traditional campaign, in which players conquer 36 real and fantasy teams in succession, returns. But “Jam” introduces a terrific new Remix campaign, which has players climbing a more open-ended mountain while playing some very inspired basketball variants that employ power-ups, half-court gameplay and every-player-for-himself mentalities. A game-wide achievements system offers another layer of challenges to complete, and knocking out those achievements unlocks a bounty of classic players and other famous faces. Why wait until 2012 when unlockable Palin and Obama characters can settle their differences right here?

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Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Twisted Pixel
ESRB Rating: Teen (cartoon violence, crude humor, language, suggestive themes)
Price: $15

“Comic Jumper’s” premise — washed-up superhero Captain Smiley must assist other characters in their comic books before he can star in his own
again — is funny, and it allows the game to regularly change its art style and spoof numerous comic book genres throughout Smiley’s quest for redemption. “Jumper” further piles on the humor with some strange live-action cutscenes, a handful of ridiculous theme songs, and a sidekick whose only talent is antagonizing Smiley (and, by extension, you). But funny turns to obnoxious in a hurry when a game plays as poorly as this one does. Most of “Jumper” resembles a bad “Contra” knockoff, with Smiley moving from left to right while shooting the same enemies ad infinitum with some seriously weak firearms. A handful of segments switch the viewpoint to behind Smiley’s back, with players controlling a targeting reticule that precedes the invention of the first-person shooter. A few mercifully short segments focus on absurdly simplistic hand-to-hand combat. Overwhelmingly, “Jumper’s” action feels either painfully rote (the same enemies continually attacking in the same patterns) or cheap and antagonizing (floods of enemies taking advantage of the Smiley’s lousy mobility while the game’s voice acting continually and gratingly reminds you of your declining health). Rarely is it fun, and rarely is the humor — which itself beats the same jokes to death after a while — worth the hassle.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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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.

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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.