Games 2/1/11: Dead Space Extraction, Breach, Fluidity

Dead Space Extraction
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Visceral Games/Eurocom/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $15 standalone, free with purchase of Playstation 3 version of “Dead Space 2”

Few games deserve a second chance as much as “Dead Space Extraction,” which sold miserably on the Wii despite continuing one of the generation’s best new fictions and outclassing just about every on-rails shooter that ever came before it.

Though it also works (and with surprisingly decent results) with a regular Playstation 3 controller, “Extraction’s” chemistry with the Wii’s remote makes it a perfect fit for the Playstation Move controller as well, and its flawless (and, on some levels, enhanced) migration immediately positions it as perhaps the best Move-enabled game out there until “Killzone 3” arrives later this month.

It also gives PS3 owners a chance to experience a slice of “Dead Space” lore that easily earns its place in the franchise canon. In contrast to the two mainline “Space” games, “Extraction” almost always surrounds you with a crew and even drops you into multiple characters’ shoes when the story — which begins before and runs somewhat parallel to the events of the first “Space” while answering a bunch of questions raised by that game — dictates.

“Extraction” also departs from franchise norms by presenting everything through a spectacularly energetic first-person presentation.

That, along with the decision to go on-rails, was a byproduct of “Extraction’s” understanding of the Wii remote’s control limitations. But it ceases to feel like a concession once it becomes clear how little it loses and how much it adds. The Necromorphs from “Space” return, and nothing about the encounters — from their attack intelligence to the spot-damage approach needed to neutralize them — feels dumbed down or scripted just because the camerawork is out of your hands.

The series’ inventive weaponry also returns, alternate fire modes and all, and some of the guns (the disc ripper in particular) are more fun to use in “Extraction” because of the added immersion the motion controls provide. Kinetic and stasis powers lay freely at your disposal, and opportunities to use them are rarely more contrived here than they are in the other “Space” games. The only real puzzle contrivance is an occasional hacking mini-game, but even that’s exhilarating when the mechanisms grow more complex and you have to hack them and fight off encroaching Necromorphs at the exact same time.

About the only place “Extraction” feels compromised is in the upgrades department. Instead of allowing you to upgrade your character and weaponry according to your combat preferences, the game assigns upgrades automatically based on mission scores and the items you pick up (if you’re quick enough) with your kinetic beam while the action rages on. The reflex test is terrific fun in its own right, and it’s a very satisfying trade-off given the style of the game, but the lost flexibility merits mentioning all the same.

“Extraction’s” main campaign is lengthy enough to easily justify the $15 price tag, and it tops that off with local co-op support and a challenge mode that strips the story missions down to points-based arcade levels. The PS3 version receives enhancements via trophy support and graphics that look nice in HD, though it lacks any kind of online functionality.

The best way to get the game is as a free bonus with initial printings of “Dead Space 2” for PS3, but schemers beware: You can’t play that version of “Extraction” without the “DS2” disc, so attempts to get “Extraction” for keeps without buying it or buying “DS2” will be thwarted.


Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Atomic Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, violence)
Price: $15

“Breach” had no choice but to be pretty special — or at least different — if it was going to successfully command $15 from the same military shooter crowd that’s already invested in “Call of Duty,” “Battlefield,” “Medal of Honor” and the rest of a rapidly crowding sub-genre.

Unfortunately, “special” is just about the last word that describes this one, because while “Breach” strives to hang with its big-budget competition, it doesn’t do anything to meaningfully set itself apart from it.

The lack of originality is apparent almost instantly. “Breach” is a multiplayer-only first-person modern warfare shooter, but the lack of a single-player storyline doesn’t excuse the game’s complete disinterest in divulging anything about why these two armies are fighting or who they even are. Those details aren’t paramount, but they also aren’t meaningless, and it’s weird to engage in a war that’s completely free of context.

Unfortunately, the visual presentation, while perfectly technically competent for a $15 downloadable game, offers few clues for those who wish to guess. “Breach’s” character models lack any significant distinction, almost to the point where soldiers from one army are interchangeable with their enemies. The five maps are similarly plain: There’s a silo that’s probably important, and the game’s best map takes place amid snow-capped mountains, but mostly, you might as well be fighting anywhere in the world.

It’s unfortunate, because while “Breach” has some fundamental hangups as well, it functions competently enough that, if it took players to a fresh war or corner of the world, it’d be easy enough to recommend.

The essentials are, imperfections aside, there. “Breach” offers four playable classes — rifleman, gunner, small-arms support and sniper — with a fifth, reconnaissance, that unlocks with experience. Each class has its own lengthly roster of weapons, add-ons and perks for players to unlock after accumulating experience points, so there’s no shortage of replay value if unlocking everything is of interest to you.

Spotty online performance leads to some issues with enemy players skipping around maps or magically popping into view, but only very infrequently, and the action mostly functions as expected. The guns feel powerful, the control satisfactorily tight. The ability to take cover (switching the perspective from first- to third-person) also is handy, though the run-and-gun leanings of enemy players will inevitably limit its utility.

“Breach’s” map design is hit-and-miss — some maps feel too corridor-laden and too often turn players into easy targets for snipers — but the game’s penchant for destructible environments offers some nice options for rearranging the furniture. Of all the ways to put down an enemy, none beats blowing a hole into the ground on which they’re standing and watching them tumble into oblivion.

In terms of modes, “Breach” again suffices. Matches support up to 16 players, and the mode offerings — territory, team deathmatch, single-life deathmatch, retrieval and a convoy mode that tasks one team with protecting the convoy while the other attacks it — run the gamut.

When the net code cooperates, getting into a game — either quickly or by browsing the available match types — works effortlessly as well. Unfortunately, while demo downloaders flood the servers, connection errors are frequent. The connection issues should soon pass if the game’s pre-release performance is any indication, though, and even at the height of the problem, attempts to get into a game eventually
paid off.


For: Wii (via Wii Shop Channel)
From: Curve Studios/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $12

Attractive lower price aside, it’s unfortunate that Nintendo took the most unique Wii game it’s published in nearly a year and effectively hid it where most Wii owners are bound never to find it. “Fluidity’s” concept is simple: You star as a small body of water tasked with purging a magical book of an ink-fueled infection. The control scheme — tilt the Wii remote to tilt the levels (which resemble pages from a book) and dictate the flow of water — is similarly straightforward. But “Fluidity’s” handling of that water is at once predictable and delightfully frantic: Like a real body of water, it’s fragile, dynamic and extremely prone to splitting into smaller bodies and droplets that, if left too small for too long, will evaporate. As you might guess, losing all the water means losing a life. But keeping the water together is more than a survival tactic, thanks to the game’s wonderful level and puzzle design. “Fluidity” doesn’t resemble a Super Mario or Kirby game in any visual respect, but it displays the same level of invention, relentlessly creating new obstacles, gadgets and scenarios to put that straightforward premise, control scheme and physics to continuous brilliant use. Though things get a little excessively difficult toward the end, the game mostly toes a perfect line in terms of difficulty: The main challenges are tricky but fair, while a ton of optional challenges are perfectly skippable but both mentally and physically gratifying to complete at your own pace.

Games 8/3/10: Kid Adventures: Sky Captain, Despicable Me: The Game, Dive: The Medes Island Secret

Kid Adventures: Sky Captain
For: Wii
From: Torus Games/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

Though not backed by a popular toy or movie brand — and, sadly, condemned to be overlooked for that very reason — “Kid Adventures: Sky Captain” is exactly the kind of summertime title parents are searching for when trying to find a well-made game that tailors to kids without treating them like idiots.

To wit, after a tutorial that introduces basic flight controls and runs maybe two minutes long, “Captain” hands players the keys to an entire island as well as their first plane. An entry-level crop of missions scatters itself around the island, and players are immediately free to select whichever missions they please or simply fly around the island and explore for as long as they like. For a game so squarely aimed at kids, the complete liberation players so quickly receive is startling and extremely refreshing.

Though an overriding storyline introduces a rival pilot who challenges players to be the island’s sky captain, “Captain’s” world is rather saccharine. Crashing planes bounce on the ground like plastic toys before the game returns players to the air with little consequence, and the game employs water balloons instead of bombs when missions call for some kind of target shooting.

But the cheerful exterior works just fine, and because “Captain” has such harmless substitutes as water balloons in tow, the game is able to devise multiple mission types without resorting to aggression and turning off parents. (An early water bomb mission, for instance, has players firing at a building in hopes of helping extinguish a fire.)

The best news about “Captain’s” controls is that there isn’t really any news at all. The Wii remote is all players need, and controlling the planes is as simple as tilting the remote right and left to steer and back and forth to ascend and descend. Getting used to the tilt sensitivity might require a little acclimation, but the controls perform exactly as they should, and the game makes it very easy to dive, roll and navigate through narrow spaces around the island.

Though there are only 40 total core missions, “Captain” gives them replay value by attaching gold-, silver- and bronze-medal scores to each. The game further sweetens the pot with an experience system that rewards points for completing missions, fulfilling optional achievements, performing dangerous stunts and flying through stunt rings scattered all over the island. Those experience rewards translate into new planes and additional paint jobs for existing planes, giving completists and fashionistas alike plenty more to do than the mission count initially suggests.

Though “Captain’s” two-player splitscreen mode is about as basic as can be — it allows two players to explore the island separately and take on missions competitively — it’s a great choice in practice. Players can freely race each other and dream up their own competitions in addition to playing any of the challenges from the single-player mode, and the freedom to switch between structured and freeform play is a luxury kids’ games rarely receive. The horizontal splitscreen presentation is a bit constricting, particularly with this being a flying instead of driving game, but that’s more a byproduct of logistics than a fault of the game.


Despicable Me: The Game
For: Wii
From: Vicious Cycle Software/D3Publisher of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild cartoon violence)

There’s a perfectly valid argument to be made in favor of “Despicable Me’s” opening tutorial level, which holds players’ hands at a pace that can generously be described as agonizing. The primary gameplay — straightforward 2D running and jumping — needs no introduction, but Gru’s weapon (a multifunction raygun whose functions can be combined) and minions (those cute yellow guys, who help Gru solve puzzles and reach previously unreachable areas) justifiably merit some explanation.

By the end of the 20-minute tutorial, though, all the unskippable stopping and explaining is enough to make seasoned players wistful of the days when games had no scruples about dropping kids into a gauntlet and daring them to figure it out themselves.

Don’t worry: Those days make a fierce comeback in level two.

Almost instantly, “Me” transforms into a beast, trotting out a string of platforming challenges that amp up the difficulty so quickly as to be unrecognizable by comparison. The game immediately asks players to demonstrate a mastery of running, jumping and raygun shooting finesse that all work in tandem, and the demands are daunting enough to rightly challenge the seasoned players who scoffed at level one. “Me” is generous with checkpoints — there’s one between every platforming challenge, so players won’t have to repeat something they cleared after failing whatever follows — so it speaks to “Me’s” ruthlessness that it’s a nasty game even with this generosity taken into account.

The same holds true for the minion portions of the game, in which players aim the Wii remote at the screen and “fire” minions into the level in ways that activate switches, form bridges and otherwise allow Gru safe passage to the exit. The demonstrations of this trick in the tutorial are completely banal, but the first real challenge necessitates thinking about the problem in a way the tutorial didn’t even present as necessarily fathomable. “Me” makes yet more concessions by scattering hint cards that reveal the solutions to the truly hopeless, but even these don’t always paint the whole picture for those who can’t think a bit critically.

The shock to the system that is most of “Me’s” post-tutorial content — a few flying segments, while a nice change of pace, feel a bit half-baked by comparison — will likely feel like found gold to players who crave a fierce challenge and never expected to find it here.

But that speaks to “Me’s” problem: It’s a game that has an identity complex and is ultimately catered to people who will never know it’s for them. The subject matter and early handholding make it entirely easy to dismiss as fare for kids, but just about everything else appears designed to send those same kids into the arms of a demoralizing temper tantrum. Even parents who attempt to assist their kids might come away defeated by something that, if presented without the family-friendly license, would almost certainly be embraced by the hardcore crowd.

So while “Me” is the arguable diamond in the summer movie game rough, it’s also completely impossible to recommend to the very specific audience that might seek it out — unless, of course, parents want to give their kids a taste of the way kids’ games were when they grew up.


Dive: The Medes Island Secret
For: Nintendo Wii via Wii Shop Channel
From: Cosmonaut Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)
Price: $10

Anyone pining for a contemporary equivalent to Sega’s “Ecco the Dolphin” games might want to take a chance on “Dive: The Medes Island Secret,” which, like “Ecco,” is a very pretty sidescrolling action game centered around deep-sea diving instead of running and jumping. “Dive” stars players as a scuba diver instead of a dolphin, and the objective — plunge to the depths of the sea and recover valuable treasure forgotten by time — is pretty pedestrian. The execution, however, is not: “Dive” uses a cursor-based control scheme instead of traditional D-pad or joystick movement, with players “pulling”
the diver around with the cursor. That unusual approach will potentially annoy those who steadfastly prefer time-tested 2D controls, but they allow for some surprisingly fluid swimming motions that perfectly complement the pace of the game and the measured speed of both the diver and the hostile sea creatures he either must tranquilize or evade. “Dive’s” most valuable asset is its emphasis on exploration over high-octane action: Like a good “Metroid”-style game, it offers multiple pathways through which to discover additional secrets, and an upgrades shop allows players to purchase equipment that lets them plunge deeper into the sea. Along with a set of achievements that should appeal to players who like to pick a game clean, there’s much to do beyond simply taking “Dive’s” main roads.

Games 10/29: LittleBigPlanet, Fallout 3, World of Goo

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

Show of hands: Who saw this coming? In this era of fully-realized 3D worlds, who could have imagined the season’s most paradigm-shifting game would be a 2D platformer?

At its absolute core, that’s what “LittleBigPlanet” is. You star as a burlap action hero named Sackboy, and your objective in each level is to reach the goal in as little time as possible while uncovering as many secrets as you can during your trek. Your efforts are scored accordingly, and every level has a worldwide leaderboard for bragging purposes.

What separates this core gameplay from the likes of, say, “Super Mario Bros.,” is a heavy infusion of physics. Objects move and topple realistically, and Sackboy can use anything that isn’t nailed down to reach faraway areas and uncover the secrets that hide within. Be it a rope, a pyramid of cardboard boxes or a Sackboy himself, everything is weighted in accordance with real-world physics.

Were you to enjoy “LittleBigPlanet” on this level alone, there is plenty of fun to be had. The game looks amazing, plays beautifully and is saturated with charm, humor and a style all its own.

But to enjoy the game this way also is to miss the point where things shift gears from evolutionary to revolutionary.

A few levels in, “LittleBigPlanet” pulls back the curtain on its level designer and community features, each of which allows players to indefinitely extend the game’s replay value for free.

The level designer, in particular, is an extraordinary achievement: It’s remarkably easy to use, and the planetload of available objects, physics and adjustable gameplay laws gives it a similarly endless degree of flexibility. Making something truly ingenious will take time, but the tool is so fun and user-friendly that it’s awfully hard not to give it a shot. Best of all, you can share the workload: Up to four players (offline and eventually online, pending an imminent patch) can design simultaneously within the same workspace.

The sky-is-limit philosophy of the creation tool makes “LittleBigPlanet’s” community features, which allow you to share your creations and download other players’ work, that much more exciting. During the game’s brief beta period, players fashioned everything from basketball games to space shooters to “Super Mario Bros.” homages using the available toolset, and it’s anybody’s guess what a larger community will be able to concoct with the complete game. User-created levels enjoy the same co-op and leaderboard support the out-of-the-box levels receive, and you aren’t obligated to create anything of your own to enjoy the riches the community provides.


Fallout 3
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC
From: Bethesda Game Studios
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)

Like an increasing number of games sophisticated enough to do so, “Fallout 3” trades in conscience, delivering one moral quandary after another and letting players tell the story on their own terms.

On paper alone, it’s impressive. Bethesda claims “Fallout 3” has more than 200 possible end scenarios, and it’s easy to see why. Your playing field — post-nuclear Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas — is gargantuan, and while a few linchpin characters are off-limits for storyline purposes, the overwhelming majority of them are fair game for whatever degree of good or evil (including death) you wish to impose. Between the lengthy main story and the ridiculous bounty of optional side missions, it’s a given your character has so many possible fates.

But while other games may boast more thrilling storylines, no game breaks the wall between player and character quite like this one. A bond is established before you’ve even touched down on D.C., and you shouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself compelled to make choices based on your real-life conscience. Similarly, don’t be shocked if the occasional moment of desperation drives you to do something you’ll feel bad about later. Surviving a post-nuclear wasteland isn’t for the meek, and you just may have to dirty your hands along the way.

Happily, “Fallout 3” handles this ambition without too much fuss. Bethesda has tread this ground before with its Elder Scrolls series, and anyone who played 2006’s “Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” will immediately understand most of this game’s intricacies, which are numerous but remarkably accessible.

Though “Fallout 3” resembles and feels like a first- or third-person (your choice) shooter, it is, like “Oblivion,” a role-playing game first. Your character’s abilities are dependant on your accumulated stats and abilities, and that includes your shot aim, which might fail you even when you target an enemy perfectly. It’s an odd disconnect, but it makes sense and is easy to figure out with practice.

“Fallout 3” mixes this real-time combat with a limited-use V.A.T.S. system, which allows you to freeze the action and queue up a small handful of automated attacks that target specific areas of an enemy. Mixing the two attack styles sounds impossibly clumsy on paper, but it’s surprisingly effortless and fun in practice. And because you can employ the two styles on the fly and in tandem, it quickly becomes second nature to do so.

With the good comes the bad, and “Oblivion” vets will recognize “Fallout 3’s” warts straight away. The game’s environments look fantastic, but the characters appear slightly lobotomized, which certainly would explain their occasional ability to simply forget prior sins you might have committed in their presence.

Given “Fallout 3’s” outrageous scope, though, these occasional lapses are to be expected. And because they never break the game, they’re also easily forgiven.


Downloadable Game of the Week

World of Goo
Reviewed for: Nintendo WiiWare
Also available for: PC
From: 2D Boy
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $15 (Wii), $20 (PC)

While store shelves continue to flood with wave after wave of awful games attempting to cash in on the Wii’s mass-market popularity, the truly devoted have retreated to the WiiWare downloadable channel, which has become an unlikely source for the system’s best games this fall. The best of the best thus far is “World of Goo,” a physics-based puzzle game in which the object is to assemble an army of goo blobs into an elastic bridge that transports the blobs from point A to point B. The process — grab a blob, drag it to create a point on your bridge and release — is simple. Accounting for the bridge’s sturdiness, however, is not, and things don’t get any easier when “Goo” demands increasingly unconventional bridges while populating ever-stranger levels with specialty blobs and other surprises. Completing every last challenge will take some real armchair engineering prowess, but 2D Boy keeps the mood light by making it easy to reset, skip and return to levels that have you hopelessly stumped. This, along with some truly inspired graphics, music and humor, makes “Goo” a game that dares you not to love it both immediately and for a good while after. Why waste $50 when $15 nets you exponentially more gratification?