Games 12/29/09: Where the Wild Things Are, Guitar Hero: Van Halen, LittleBigPlanet Pirates of the Caribbean Premium Level Kit

Where the Wild Things Are
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Griptonite Games/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, fantasy violence)

Invariably, once Christmas wraps and the annual holiday onslaught of megablockbusters eases up, there remain a few games that bear the scars of coming out at precisely the wrong time and being completely overlooked for doing so.

In 2009, that dubious distinction belongs to “Where the Wild Things Are,” a not-necessarily-for-kids’ game hopelessly tied to the release date of a not-necessarily-for-kids’ movie and subsequently overlooked for coming out smack in the middle of a tidal wave of bigger releases. A long history of lousy games based on kids’ movies, and the perception that creates for this game, didn’t help matters.

But “WTWTA” borrows heavily from the Playstation 2 classic “Ico” and, surprisingly, succeeds where other like-minded games failed. Players control Max, the mischievous little boy who washes up uninvited on the island of the Wild Things, and most of the game’s action consists of the same mix of light combat and ledge jumping, rock climbing, and environmental puzzles that “Ico” did so masterfully well. Max is easy to control, and the semi-fixed camera angle — also borrowed from “Ico” — presents each environment in a manner that’s intuitive without making traversing it a complete cakewalk. The Wild Things add a wrinkle to the challenges by lending a hand and further altering the landscape whenever they can.

As should be expected from a game based on a movie that itself is based on what practically is a picture book, “WTWTA’s” story isn’t exactly a narrative barnburner. But Griptonite makes good on with what it has to work with: The game looks pretty good and animates nicely, and the Wild Things emerge as really likable characters in spite of their secondary role throughout most of the game.

Like so many other family games, “WTWTA” pads the main story content by dropping various collectables in each level. Unlike as with most games, though, rounding them up is something a worthy pursuit. The game doesn’t overload the environments with hundreds of useless objects to round up, nor does it hide items in places players would never bother to look. There’s a challenge in finding everything, but it isn’t so obtuse as to be a waste of time, and finding them pays off in the form of rewards — some of them leading to fun new optional challenges — in the hub level that doubles as the Wild Things’ home base.

The sum of this content (there’s nothing to do beyond the single-player adventure) doesn’t quite justify the full price the game commanded back at launch, but a quick price drop means finding “WTWTA” brand-new for upwards of $20 less already is a feasible proposition. At that price, it’s hard not to recommend it: Younger players will appreciate a game made for them that doesn’t insult their gaming intelligence, and their parents — or really, anyone in need of an “Ico”-style fix — might come away surprised by just how much this innocuous piece of tie-in merchandising gets right.


Guitar Hero: Van Halen
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii and Playstation 2
From: Neversoft/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

“Guitar Hero’s” previous single-band releases, devoted to Aerosmith and Metallica, were already of questionable quality before “Rock Band” kicked the bar out of the atmosphere with “The Beatles: Rock Band.”

Though a perfectly tenable game for reasons to be detailed later, “Guitar Hero: Van Halen” doesn’t brighten the picture. Depending on your opinion of Val Halen’s present-day relevance and your tolerance for “Guitar Hero” releases in the span of a single year, it might even constitute a leap backward.

Per convention, Van Halen’s visual fingerprints are all over the box and interface, and the band’s likenesses come to life in typical semi-cartoony fashion. This time, though, politics and squabbling have left former bassist Michael Anthony and former lead singers Sammy Hagar and Gary Cherone off the bill. Consequently, none of the band’s Hagar- and Cherone-fronted catalog appears, either. Whether the loss of that music and iconography is a big deal will vary from fan to fan, but there’s no arguing it doesn’t splinter whatever hope “GH:VH” had for documenting its subject matter the way “Beatles” did.

Then again, Neversoft’s inability to learn from “Beatles” — or the failings of its own single-band games — torpedoed that hope without the band’s help.

“GH:VH’s” 47-song track list is, like those other games, significantly smaller than the numbered (but same-priced) “Guitar Hero” game. Bbut the real issue comes from 19 of those songs being either Eddie Van Halen guitar solos or the product of bands other than Van Halen. The game claims the other music has some stylistic connection to Van Halen’s music, but one look at the track list (Fountains of Wayne? Third Eye Blind? Weezer?) suggests otherwise. Whatever effort would have been necessary to kiss and make up with Hagar, if not everyone from Van Halen’s past, would more than have been worth it if it resulted in a coherent, complete tribute to the band’s catalog. This, by contrast, feels like a track pack tucked inside a full-priced game with some extra filler to justify the price.

On that note, it comes down to whether the tracks, which would cost nearly $80 if totaled up as downloadable content for “Guitar Hero 5,” justify the purchase. “GH:VH” at least does things — namely, a new career mode and a new suite of achievements/trophies in the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions — a track pack alone cannot.

But do you want to buy something Activision seems reluctant to sell? The company gave the game away to anyone who purchased “GH5” earlier in the year, and it waited two months to sneak it onto shelves after most people’s holiday shopping had concluded. Pushing the game out the door at full price after previously giving it away seems like a move made for the half-hearted heck of it, which seems to have been “GH:VH’s” artistic approach as well. Watching a publisher practically wash its hand of a product doesn’t affect the quality of the product itself, but it’s hard to get excited about a game when the people who made it seem not to care.


LittleBigPlanet: Pirates of the Caribbean Premium Level Kit
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
Requires: LittleBigPlanet
From: Media Molecule/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $6

Media Molecule has made more than good on its promise to consistently support “LittleBigPlanet” long after its late 2008 release, so the appearance of a “Pirates of the Caribbean” level kit would superficially seem no more interesting than the numerous other costumes and packs that preceded it. But with this level kit comes a new element — water — whose significance needs no real  explanation for those already familiar with “LittleBigPlanet’s” modus operandi as a physics-heavy 2D platformer. And beyond the clumsy introduction — the Playstation Store’s description of the pack doesn’t even mention water, much less its significance — the new content works just as one would hope it would. Media Molecule’s attention to physics detail has gone a long way toward establishing “LittleBigPlanet’s” identity, and its year-in-the-making take on water enjoys the same level of care. Implementing it in new and existing level designs is as easy as adding any other ingredient via the game’s level creation tool, and the tool’s extreme flexibility allows players to utilize and control water in a multitude of imaginative ways. That, in turn, gives a game with near-endless legs even more staying power going into 2010. Not bad for six dollars. (For those who care, the rest of the pack, which includes “Caribbean” character costumes, five new single-player levels, new PSN trophies and new music/objects/stickers/materials with which to further modify levels, is pretty hearty as well.)

Games 7/21: Wii Sports Resort, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, The Punisher: No Mercy

Wii Sports Resort
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

Nintendo was perhaps more lucky than good with “Wii Sports,” a terrifically fun compilation of games that made the Wii remote look considerably more versatile than it actually was.

With “Wii Sports Resort” — and particularly, thanks to the Wii MotionPlus attachment that’s bundled inside — that illusion is now for real. The MotionPlus attachment allows the Wii remote to mimic real-time motion in ways the remote cannot do on its own, and “Resort” takes full advantage en route to establishing itself as a superior sequel.

Structurally, “Resort” feels a lot like the original “Sports.” Each of the 12 available sports (up from five) features a handful of modes built around the sport, and each mode offers a single-player mode with scalable difficulty, two- or four-player local multiplayer or (in most cases) both. Online play, once again, is a no-show.

The incremental differences are no surprise, because “Resort” exists primarily to make the MotionPlus’ introduction a smooth one.

That, happily, is where the game shines. Bowling returns almost structurally unchanged from “Sports,” but the added control flexibility makes it easier to add spin and pick up trickier spares. Tennis, now reborn as Table Tennis, also benefits immensely by giving you more control over not just the trajectory of your shot, but the angle with which you hold your paddle. (Golf, unfortunately, still suffers from the excessive sensitivity that hampered it in its original incarnation.)

The new events hit more than miss as well. The Frisbee events, which include Frolf and a Frisbee Dog contest, replicate the sensation of tossing a Frisbee shockingly well, taking into account both your toss and how you hold the disc while doing so. Archery, which employs the Nunchuck attachment, never quite feels realistic, but it nevertheless incorporates the motions and the science of archery to surprisingly good effect. Basketball’s Pickup Game mode is a bit weird — you can’t control your player’s on-court movements — but the 3-Point Contest is great because of how well the remote replicates the artistry of a perfect jump shot. Even the Canoeing event shines due to how responsive and flexible the paddling feels.

But it’s the Swordplay events, which allow you to wield a Nerf-style sword with remarkable freedom of motion, that headline this endeavor. The freedom is such that you can even turn the Wii remote around and bonk opposing swordfighters with the butt of your sword, and the range of events — from one-on-one battles to a surprisingly lengthy single-player adventure game in which you take down waves of enemies like a wannabe Jedi — allow you ample opportunity to take full advantage.

Doing so much right makes “Resort’s” lowlights entirely forgivable. Cycling and Power Cruising, in particular, feel gimmicky and unnatural to the point of unwieldy. The Air Sports (flying, skydiving) and Wakeboarding events fare better, but their simplicity positions them as occasional diversions rather than heavy rotation material.


Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
For: Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, Playstation 2 and PC
From: Blue Sky/Eurocom/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

Games based on kids movies absolutely love to bounce around between genres under the assumption that multiple jobs acceptably done makes up for an inability to do any one of them especially well. More often than not, the assumption doesn’t fly.

It takes longer than it should, but “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” emerges as an exception to the rule. Instead of diluting the experience democratically, “Dinosaurs” lives dangerously by getting its worst moments out of the way and rewarding anyone who remained faithful long enough to keep playing.

It isn’t easy. “Dinosaurs'” first level, starring players as Sid, feels like any old so-so 3D platforming level from any old so-so game. Sid controls sloppily, his hand-to-hand combat repertoire is pitifully bad, and his mission objectives never aspire beyond simple forward progress and item collection.

The second mission, which thrusts Sid into what essentially is a multiple-part chore simulator, fares even worse. It also ranks among the game’s longest levels, combining with the preceding level to create a most distressing first impression.

But it’s during mission three that “Dinosaurs” starts turning it around, embarking on the first of what amounts to an impressively high number of successful right turns. The mission, starring players as Diego and sending him on a high-speed chase to catch a gazelle, is as simple as it sounds and lasts barely two minutes long. But it’s fast, slightly exciting, and more fun in those two minutes than the preceding two missions combined.

Following another so-so Sid level — which, happily, is better conceived than the preceding two — “Dinosaurs” mixes it up again with a mission objective that sends Sid rolling down a mountain atop of giant snowball. The challenge amounts to a simplified but fun riff on “Super Monkey Ball,” and bumping into certain enemies like a high-speed sumo is a blast.

From there, “Dinosaurs” tries a little of everything — second-person-camera escapes from rampaging dinosaurs, 2D platforming levels starring Scrat, third-person projectile shooting, a ride on a pterodactyl that pays strikingly good homage to 2D sidescrolling space shooters that dominated arcades in the 1980s. Somehow, it all works. Even “Dinosaur’s” later 3D platforming levels, starring the much more capable Buck, are a considerable upgrade over what preceded it. It’s as if another developer took the reigns halfway through the game’s creation.

The sum total of “Dinosaurs” — a single-player story mode that runs five or six hours and a healthy collection of single-player challenge levels and multiplayer party games — would amount to ideal rental fodder were it made for older players. But the level of variety found inside — to say nothing of how well “Dinosaurs” pulls most of it off — makes this a surprisingly viable (and replayable) buy for younger fans of the movies. Outside of perhaps “Monsters vs. Aliens,” it’s the best of its breed so far this summer.


The Punisher: No Mercy
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: ZEN Studios
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $10

“The Punisher: No Mercy” comes to the Playstation 3 on the assumption that those who purchase it have no need for the mountain of advances first-person shooters have made in the last 10 years. It exists primarily as a multiplayer shooter (eight players), but the online play lags and the interface makes it trickier than need be to set up a game with friends. In terms of action, “Mercy” is similarly uninspired: The bounty of unlockable weapons and power-ups is nice, but the modes, maps and general look and feel of the action just feels old and excessively simple. It doesn’t help that you need to play through the single-player mode — essentially a collection of multiplayer matches with absolutely lobotomized A.I. bots charging at you instead of human opponents — to access most of that armory. The reliance on such ancient conventions and technology is slightly forgivable considering “Mercy’s” $10 price tag, but that leniency goes out the window when games like “Battlefield 1943,” which costs $5 more but feels exponentially more modern, release at the same time. In terms of which shooter deserves your dollars, it’s not even a contest.

Games 6/30/09: Grand Slam Tennis, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Fallout 3: Point Lookout

Grand Slam Tennis
For: Nintendo Wii
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Before the Wii was marketed as a system for everyone, it was pegged as a beacon for unprecedented immersion. Now that Nintendo’s $20 Wii MotionPlus peripheral is finally here — and, more importantly, games like “Grand Slam Tennis” are on board to support it — that original claim finally holds true.

It demands mentioning that “Tennis” plays fine without the peripheral. The same control scheme from “Wii Sports” is included, and “Tennis” betters it by mapping lob and drop shots to the A and B buttons and allowing players to use the D-pad to shift their character between quadrants on the court. A more advanced scheme, incorporating the nunchuck attachment, affords players full character movement along with the same shot controls. “Tennis” allows you to swap schemes and difficulty levels on the fly, which makes establishing your ideal setup reasonably painless.

But “Tennis” becomes an exponentially better game when the Wii MotionPlus enters the picture. Instead of simply reading every motion as a generic swing, “Tennis” translates your handling of the Wii remote directly into how your character handles the racket. Shots are aimed rather than merely timed, and the trajectory of your motions significantly affects the path the ball takes.

The irony of this is that en route to becoming a better game, “Tennis” becomes a much more unfriendly one first — to the point where it initially doesn’t even seem like the thing works. “Tennis'” video tutorial is decent, but this kind of precision is so foreign to the Wii that a significant period of acclimation almost certainly will be necessary.

Give it that time, though — and that may mean an hour, even two, of solid play — and it should click. When it does, it feels extraordinarily precise.

Either way you play, “Tennis” backs it up with a hefty feature set. The single-player career mode is fairly standard stuff, but some of its ideas — particularly the ability to beat the likes of Nadal, McEnroe and Williams and then assign a signature move of theirs to your created player — are implemented really nicely. Local multiplayer (four players) comprises of both traditional tennis and a handful of party configurations. Online multiplayer (four players) sticks strictly to traditional singles and doubles matches, but in another nice touch, two players on the same console can play doubles together against online competition. “Tennis” also uses EA’s superior online service instead of Nintendo’s friend codes system.

But the slickest trick of all might be the Get Fit feature. Link your created character to a slot in Get Fit, and “Tennis” tracks your activity throughout the entirety of the game’s other modes whenever you play with that character. One can only guess what method of calorie counting “Tennis” uses and how accurate it is, but seeing this little bit of progress stamped across the game’s other screens adds a nice layer of secondary reward that turns even the most abysmal tennis performance into a source of positive reinforcement.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Reviewed for: Nintendo Wii
Also available for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 2, PSP, Nintendo DS, Windows, Mac
From: EA Bright Light/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes)

It seems somewhat unfair to criticize “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” for feeling a whole lot like “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which came and went two full summers ago. “Phoenix” broke significant ground by giving players complete, open-world access to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and “Prince,” which aims to faithfully replicate a film that largely takes place in the same world, has no choice but to do the same thing.

Fair or not, there’s no way trekking through these same classrooms and corridors can inspire the same level of awe it did the first time around. “Prince” provides as much access as “Phoenix” did, and it does make improvements on your ability to adjust the camera manually and find the fastest route between two points. But the improvements are incremental, and beyond a few new areas and some new side objectives to complete, the game feels handcuffed by its need to stay faithful to a story that, at least in the present tense, goes few places “Phoenix” already hasn’t been.

(The flashback scenes, which play a crucial role in “Prince’s” story, play out purely as non-interactive cutscenes, which makes sense but, if you’re familiar with their implications, arguably represents the game’s biggest missed opportunity to shake things up.)

Perhaps the most notable addition to “Prince” is the return of Quidditch, which finds you playing exclusively in Harry’s shoes as the Gryffindor seeker. As a diversion to the rest of the game, the Quidditch bits are fast and fun. But they also never aspire to be more than a diversion. There’s no sport-specific strategy to capturing the Golden Snitch: All you have to do is fly around some obstacles and through star-shaped rings, and it’ll be yours. The speed of these sequences makes them more exciting than they sound on paper, but by no means does this aim to replicate Quidditch the way EA’s “Quidditch World Cup” game did back in 2003.

“Prince” also introduces a nifty potion-building mini-game, which gets over some slow and simple beginnings and evolves into a surprisingly fun franchise answer to the “Cooking Mama” games. The object is the same — mix the requested ingredients in a specific order without overdoing it — and “Prince” doesn’t really take it anywhere beyond there. But the relative freedom the game affords with regard to handling ingredients keeps it from being a mindless exercise in following onscreen prompts.

Overwhelmingly, though, “Prince” is more of the same. The Dueling Club challenges are repackaged instances of the wand duels that already appeared in “Phoenix,” and they’re not deep enough to make the inclusion of a two-player duel mode a terribly big deal.

The ultimate draw of “Prince” remains its capacity to bring the story to interactive, single-player life. For those who understand what that entails — and how it handcuffed the developers — there’s a pleasant, if very familiar, experience to be had.


Fallout 3: Point Lookout
For: Xbox 360 and PC
Requires: Fallout 3
From: Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)

The arrival of “Point Lookout” feels somewhat anti-climactic following the release of “Broken Steel,” which both changed the ending to “Fallout 3” and raised the game’s level cap by 50 percent. But “Lookout,” which takes us up the Potomac River and into Maryland, more than compensates. “Lookout” trades in the grey, concrete wasteland of post-nuclear D.C. in favor of shorelines, marshes and Civil War-era mansions — a stark change of scenery that occasionally better resembles Bethesda’s “Elder Scrolls” games than “Fallout 3.” With the change of scenery comes a change of culture, which pretty significantly affects both the storyline and the characters you befriend and battle. All that liberation allows “Lookout” to spin whatever wild yarn it pleases, which (without spoiling anything) also leads to the most phantasmagorical tangent since the virtual reality sequence in “Fallout 3” proper. “Lookout” unfolds on what rather convincingly ranks as the largest chunk of virtual real estate in any “Fallout 3” expansion thus far. Point Lookout is nearly one-fourth the size of the D.C. Wasteland, and those who travel off the beaten path will uncover a couple of first-rate side quests that both enrich the local mythology and fortify its ties to the larger “Fallout” universe.

Games 4/7/09: The Godfather II, Monsters vs. Aliens: The Video Game, Burn Zombie Burn!

online casinoGodfather II
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)

Sometimes, it’s the little things. In a game as wonderfully, erratically ambitious as “The Godfather II,” it’s the little things that, however subtly, sometimes save the day.

Take, for instance, the game’s ingenious living map, which not only helps you get from point A to B — handy, considering the story takes place in open-world Florida and open-world New York City at the same time — but keeps track of your targets, your allies, your family’s holdings, the profit margins at each property and just about everything else you need to manage via the game’s newfound Don powers. When a holding is under attack, the animated 3D map quite decisively illustrates the urgency. Ditto for when a rival holding is up for grabs.

And thank goodness, too. The original “Godfather” game was a busy affair, but “II” takes it to another plane. You’re still on the ground as a soldier — intimidating businesses, picking locks, battling rival gangs, handling random strangers’ dirty business and doing what needs doing to stay out of jail. At the same time, though, you’re also building your own branch of the family from the base. Among other activities, you’ll build your own crew, assign guards to newly-acquired businesses, and send protection whenever your family — in New York, Florida or both — comes under attack.

That’s a lot to ask of a game that’s also cribbing from the “Grand Theft Auto” school of open world game design, and “II,” much like its predecessor, proves to be a jack more than a master of many of its trades. The third-person shooting controls are good enough, but prone to sloppiness in close quarters or when cover is concerned. Opposing A.I. isn’t particularly bright, bystander A.I. often is ridiculously inept, and sometimes, objects and people just plain disappear when you hit them.

The management stuff proves a surprisingly good fit considering how different its demands are from the ground-level gameplay, but some will find it an intrusion when, for instance, rival gangs repeatedly attack your holdings and force you to divert attention from whatever task is already at hand. Some will feel the same about the family management and character upgrading — all handled well, but all logistically demanding stuff that typically falls outside the bounds of this genre.

The natural upside is that “II” is one heck of a meal for players who bring their appetite. All those logistics translate into a maze of ways to see the story to completion, and the usual torrent of unlockables and side objectives are there for the truly ambitious. “II’s” online component (16 players) isn’t quite as interesting — the available modes are themed, but typical of team-based squad shooters — but any money you make (or lose) online does apply to your single-player family’s balance sheet.


Monsters vs. Aliens: The Video Game
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, Playstation 2 and Windows PC
Alternate version available for: Nintendo DS
From: Beenox/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

Every spring, a wave of kids’ movie tie-in games, ranging from bland to terrible, invades stores and preys on unsuspecting parents.

This year almost certainly will be no different. But before that wave crashes down, we have “Monsters vs. Aliens,” a game that not only is terrifically fun for kids, but legitimately good enough for their older siblings and parents to enjoy with or without their participation.

The monsters are the good guys in “MvA,” and you’ll have ample opportunity to control three (and possibly four) of them. Ginormica, a 49-foot woman with pickup truck-sized roller skates, typically handles racing- and on-rails missions. The Missing Link, a weird fish/gorilla hybrid, is gifted in the arts of brawling and the scaling and deconstruction of enormous alien robots. Finally, there’s a dopey blue blob named B.O.B., whose ability to stick to walls and ceilings and squeeze through grates makes him good for a legion of platforming missions through puzzle- and maze-like arenas. (An offline co-op mode allows a second player to play as head monster Dr. Cockroach, but he functions more as support for the first player than a full-blown character.)

During its opening slate of missions, “MvA” shifts frequently between characters and displays an impressive grasp of all three play styles. It also raises some red flags with safe level design and a need to repeating certain objectives almost verbatim and in succession.

Once the acclimation period ends, though, business picks up dramatically. The levels are longer, and the extra time allows “MvA” to drum up some really clever designs that engage your monsters’ abilities in ways the earlier missions couldn’t even imagine. When the game is at its best — particularly when going nuts with B.O.B.’s labrythinine levels — it operates on a plane typically reserved for the likes of Ratchet and Mario.

This isn’t to suggest the game completely escapes perception. Repetition definitely returns toward the end, peaking during a final boss fight that rehashes the same sequence two too many times. “MvA” occasionally leans excessively on context button sequences, and while the characters are funny and appealing, this is in no way a showcase of the 360 or PS3’s graphical capabilities.

Still, it cannot be stressed enough how much this one outclasses the vast majority of its counterparts. “MvA” handles numerous play styles without any one dragging down the others, and it never underestimates its audience. If the kids want a new game to play this summer, this, until further notice, is the one to get.


Burn Zombie Burn!
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: doublesix games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $10

“Burn Zombie Burn!” would appear to be self-explanatory: It’s an overhead, “Geometry Wars”-style shooter, only with cartoon zombies chasing you instead of shapes. Nevertheless, a trip through the tutorial is a must, because only there will you learn, despite appearances, how unique this little gem is. “Burn” lacks “GW”-style dual stick controls, but the scheme it uses instead proves a better fit once you master strafing and befriend the lock-on button. The title isn’t kidding either: Zombies you set on fire are considerably more dangerous than regular zombies, but the more inflamed undead you have on your tail, the more points you get for each kill. The points matter, too, because high scores are the only way to unlock all six levels and the surprising multitude of mini challenges tucked inside each. A terrific risk/reward system emerges from “Burn’s” strange science of normal versus inflamed zombies, and some seriously diverse weapon and zombie types complicate things to a satisfying degree. For those willing to master it, the total package is an impressive return on investment: Unlocking and mastering every last one of “Burn’s” challenges provides the kind of time sink $10 — and sometimes $60 — rarely gets you. The only bummer: Co-op is splitscreen and offline only.

Games 12/9/08: Chrono Trigger DS, Sonic Unleashed

Chrono Trigger
For: Nintendo DS
From: Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild fantasy violence, suggestive themes, use of alcohol)

Square-Enix has struggled, rather mightily, to usher the magic of yesteryear into the present generation. Unfortunately — be it due to games that are good but not great (“Infinite Undiscovery,” “The Last Remnant”), sequels that can’t live up to their predecessors (“Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift”) or great games undermined by flimsy marketing and word of mouth (“The World Ends With You,” “Crisis Core”) — nothing seems to land with the splash Square and Enix used to create with seemingly invincible regularity once upon a time.

So it’s hard to blame anybody for retreating back to those glory days and unloading all the first-rate remakes that have graced the PSP and Nintendo DS this year. In fact, if there’s any finger-pointing necessary regarding the reissue of the Super NES role-playing classic “Chrono Trigger,” it’s that it took Square-Enix this long to give us a portable rendition of what many consider the best game (a) in the company’s catalog and (b) the history of the genre.

To its credit, “Trigger” returns as neither a slapped-together port nor a tinkered-beyond-recognition remake. The look of the SNES original is preserved, but the animated cut-scenes from the Playstation reissue are subbed in and gifted with a cleaner translation of the original Japanese script. The migration to the DS produces obvious benefits with respect to touch screen menu management and extra screen real estate, and “Trigger” utilizes them exactly as it should and to whatever degree you want them to intervene. (Translation: No new gimmicky touch screen mini-games gumming up the works.)

“Trigger” keeps it simple with respect to content additions as well, sprinkling some new dungeons, missions and items on top without monkeying too much with the original storyline. Unfamiliar players likely won’t be able to distinguish between new and old, but those who have the game committed to memory will likely appreciate the occasional surprise wrinkle, not to mention a new ending (in addition to the multiple preexisting endings) that give “Trigger’s” biggest fans a few new revelatory stones to overturn.

Somewhat fittingly, “Trigger’s” only major blight comes thanks to its biggest grab at change. The game’s new multiplayer component (two players, local wireless only) is an arena mode in which you train a monster and pit it in battle against friends’ creatures. It isn’t broken, but it’s a long way from great, and there are numerous dedicated DS games that offer a deeper and more engaging take on this idea.


Sonic Unleashed
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii
From: Sonic Team/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, fantasy violence)

By hook or by crook, Sega needs to pull the plug on Sonic Team’s disastrous dismantling of Sonic the Hedgehog’s good name and give the reins to a developer that can figure it out.

“Sonic Unleashed,” the umpteenth reboot of the franchise since things started careening south seven years ago, merely drives home this point — yet another example of a developer too stubborn to give fans what they want and not nearly capable enough to justify such obstinacy.

To its partial credit, “Unleashed” isn’t the technical nightmare 2006’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” was. The camera only occasionally rather than constantly interferes, and the game’s failings are merely disappointing instead of staggeringly impossible to understand. “Unleashed” also looks considerably better than its predecessor, which was chock full of graphical glitches, and while the story remains a complete mess, it at least won’t creep you out the way “Hedgehog’s” weird romance did.

At its best, “Unleashed” even behaves exactly like a Sonic game should, with fleeting levels and boss fights that perfectly encapsulate what Sonic is (or should be) all about. These moments are hyper-fast, kinetic and blissfully reminiscent of Sonic’s two-dimensional glory days.

As seems to always happen, though, these moments continually suffer from interruption. Considerably more than half of “Unleashed’s” playtime stars you as a werewolf mutant version of Sonic, and here, the fast gameplay gives way to tedious combat and puzzle-solving that pay respect to “God of War” but fall hopelessly short due to sloppy controls and brainless enemy A.I.

Distressingly, the game’s story portions make the werewolf segments look like a thrill ride. “Unleashed” unnecessarily structures its story around a hub world, which leads to several more hub worlds that eventually let you actually play a level. Traversing those hub worlds is tedious in its own right, but having to gather clues by talking to mostly useless townspeople first is an unbelievable drag.

Slogging through long werewolf levels and dreadful hub crawls might be tolerable if “Unleashed’s” traditional Sonic levels were continually first-rate, but sloppiness yet again takes over whenever one of those fleeting moments of bliss ends. You will die often in “Unleashed,” and often it will be because some aspect of the game — be it loose controls, bizarre momentum shifts, an inebriated camera or something else — fails you.

Perhaps if Sonic Team poured all its energy into these levels, which precisely is what everyone wants it to do anyway, that sloppiness would subside. Once again, though — and, sadly, probably not for the last time — the powers that be have demonstrated that they just don’t get it.

Games 12/2/08: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Tomb Raider: Underworld

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts
For: Xbox 360
From: Rare/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

If you really want to, you can play large chunks of “Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts” like a traditional “Banjo-Kazooie” game, which — once upon a time — was Rare’s very capable answer to Nintendo’s 3D Super Mario games.

“N&B” is, in fact, chock full of things to run, jump and climb on — so long as you don’t mind some meager compensation for your efforts. While certain acrobatics will net you exciting bonuses, most simply reward you with the game’s version of currency. Banjo’s gymnastic talents almost never factor in beating the main storyline.

That honor, instead, belongs to “N&B’s” many, many vehicular missions, which see you winning races, conducting rescue missions and engaging in various forms of vehicular combat, among a ton of other clever objectives, to accumulate enough tokens to unlock levels and ultimately beat the game.

That sounds like the last thing the series needs … until you step inside Mumbo’s Garage and discover just how much control you have over the construction of those vehicles. “N&B” gives you plenty of prefabricated land, air and sea vehicles to ride if you lack the creative fortitude to design your own, but the game’s creation tool is a stunning achievement that’s both easy (and fun) to use and shockingly lax in terms of restriction. If you construct a massive, completely unbalanced tank with one sideways wheel, “N&B’s” physics engine will make it impossibly difficult to ride well. At no point, though, will the game prevent you taking it out of the garage and giving it a shot.

That freedom — along with hundreds of parts ranging from simple foundation blocks to weapons and accessories galore — afford “N&B” ridiculous amounts of possibility, and the game’s inspired design fulfills that possibility completely. More than just a beautiful, funny game with great characters, “N&B” is a wonderland of creativity, filled to the brim with challenges and surprises that cater simultaneously to casual and seasoned players. You need only complete roughly half the vehicle challenges to beat “N&B,” but knocking off every last one of them (and earning optional time trial trophies in the process) is a long, entirely joyful endeavor for those crazy enough to take it on.

Rare’s hands-off magic carries over to the multiplayer space (eight players online, two offline), where armchair engineers can engage in 28 different race and stunt events and bring their homemade (and tradable) creations to the party. The races and derbies are fun in their own right, but the myriad ways people can construct a winning vehicle make “N&B” an entirely one-of-a-kind racer on a console that’s stuffed with them.


Tomb Raider: Underworld
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii, PC and Nintendo DS
From: Crystal Dynamics/Eidos
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

Every kid growing up — including, presumably, future Crystal Dynamics employees — heard the same spiel about the importance of a good first impression. So it’s disappointing to see lessons go unlearned in “Tomb Raider: Underworld,” which follows a brief tutorial with a bland underwater mission whose centerpiece puzzle looks promising until you realize it’s just an uninspired fetch quest.

At least these dull beginnings show off how good “Underworld” looks and moves — an important point for a franchise designed around exotic locales and a main character capable of treating them as her personal jungle gym. More importantly, it does just enough to show that all the improvements “Tomb Raider” has made since its 2006 reboot remain intact, which is good enough to keep players believing better action lies ahead.

It does. “Underworld” treats its environments — jungles, caverns and the sea, to paint a picture — like gigantic puzzles, crafting huge worlds that neither feel contrived in how you maneuver through them nor lean on vagueness and cheap design to ward those contrivances off. Traversing though an area is a satisfying endeavor, but the levels are designed so well that as long as you’re keen to your surroundings and abilities, you’ll never be stuck for too long. When all else fails, “Underworld’s” generous checkpoint system makes it easy to just try something, see if it works, and try something else if it doesn’t.

Doing so is a treat, too: “Underworld” is gifted with extraordinary control and a camera that, outside of its occasional nature to zoom in way too close, keeps up with you. The intuitiveness extends to vehicular segments (the motorbike is a blast to ride) and even “Underworld’s” novel answer to interactive cutscenes, which slow down time and let you figure out what to do rather than simply plaster a button on screen and ask you to press it.

The lone downer? Once again, it’s combat. Between the peashooter power of the guns and hand-to-hand combat that just feels unwieldy, “Underworld” is as ungraceful during a fight as it is graceful most everywhere else. Fortunately, the firefights are both sparse and brief, and a few of them are completely avoidable if you’re fleet-footed.

As often happens in this series, you can take or leave “Underworld’s” story, which is amusingly outlandish but by no means crucial to enjoying the challenges it sets up for you. Good thing, too: Without spoiling anything, the game’s ending is so abrupt, you likely won’t see it coming. Remember “Halo 2?” Consider this a second coming.

DVD 11/11/08: Kung Fu Panda/Secrets of the Furious Five, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Mister Foe, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Opium: Diary of a Madwoman

Kung Fu Panda (PG, 2008, Dreamworks)

The easiest way to break down the “Kung Fu Panda” mythology is to use a “Star Wars” analogy. There’s Po — a clumsy, rotund panda whose date with destiny is not unlike that of one Luke Skywalker. His reluctant master, Master Shifu (think Obi-Wan Kenobi), must train him to face off against a former protégé whose lust for power turned him to, let’s say, the dark side. And so on. None of this is to sell “Panda” short or dismiss it as derivative. To the contrary, “Panda’s” skeletal similarities to something on the level of “Star Wars” underscores just how ambitious it is compared to your typical anthropomorphic animated film. It colors in that outline with a lore all its own, and once the details of that betrayal are laid out, you might be startled to find out just how drawn into the story you’ve become. It doesn’t hurt that Po is an obscenely likeable main character or that “Panda” earns its laughs through surprising levels of wit. If there’s a downside here, it’s that “Panda” is potentially a victim of its own spectacle: The fight scenes that break out are unbelievably cool and clever in funny and exciting ways, but they may be too much for the film’s supposed audience. Keep that in mind if you’re watching this with young children.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, chopsticks how-to, noodles feature, wild pandas PSA, music video, DVD game, Dreamworks Animation video jukebox.
— “Secrets of the Furious Five” (NR, 2008, Dreamworks): Remember that lore business discussed above? This semi-sequel companion DVD, bundled with select “Panda” DVDs, delves further into the ways and methods of Po’s dojomates, who play a significant role in his film. At 24 minutes long, the feature is on the shorter side, but if you take it for what it really is — a DVD extra that comes in its own case and with its own extras — it’s a cool treat and a nice bridge toward what inevitably will be a full-fledged “Panda” sequel. Extras: Drawing/dancing/Kung-Fu how-tos, Chinese Zodiac feature, DVD game, DVD-ROM content (printables, sound machine, game demos).

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: 3-Disc Special Edition
Like most young children, little Hellboy (Montse Ribé as the kid version, Ron Perlman as the full-grown version) loved hearing a bedtime story before trotting off to sleep. The difference, in this case, is that the mythical army from those bedtime stories not only is real, but led by a prince (Luke Goss) determined to return control of the planet to his people. Sounds like the plot of just about every fantasy film released in the last 10 years, and in several basic respects, it plays out as such. But if you saw the original “Hellboy,” you already know what sets “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” apart: It’s genuinely funny, smartly written, rooted equally in its universe and ours, and fronted by one of filmdom’s more charismatic superheroes (with a cast of brilliant sidekicks to match). On top of bringing all that good stuff over, “Army” also brings with it a new cast of wonderfully designed creatures and special effects that actually enhance rather than drag down the film’s spirited mood. If you’ve avoided “Hellboy” for wariness of its potential blandness and/or excess derivation, great news: Should you give the series a chance, you’re now in for two extremely pleasant surprises instead of just one. Selma Blair,     Anna Walton, Doug Jones, James Dodd, Jeffrey Tambor, John Alexander and John Hurt, among others, also star.

Mister Foe (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell) is a bit touched by history — slightly obsessed with his mother’s passing, completely convinced his father’s (Ciarán Hinds) new love (Claire Forlani) had something to do with it, and so socially damaged that he spies on people from afar rather than interact with them. So you can imagine, maybe, how much trouble is possible when Hallam, upon setting out on his own, meets a woman (Sophia Myles) who looks uncannily like his mother. The collision of coincidence and character flaws gives rise to all sorts of cute and trite possibilities — bait that “Mister Foe,” happily, never takes. Rather, it pulls off the kid gloves and lets its lead character twist uncomfortably in his own coming-of-age story — so much so, you may not even like the guy regardless of what his story does for you. That is entirely to the film’s credit, by the way: This is a genre that’s rife with imitation, character coddling and soft landings, and “Foe” takes no such handouts. You might be uncomfortable rooting Hallam on, but that beats feeling cheated by where his story ends up. Jamie Sives, Ewen Bremner and Maurice Roëves also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars: 2-Disc Special Edition (PG, 2008, Warner Home Video)
The hate was strong with this one when it hit theaters this summer, but was it justified? “The Clone Wars” is a “Star Wars” movie, which typically implies event-level status, but it really exists as a 90-minute commercial for the now-airing Cartoon Network show of the same name. Given the tone of that show — action-centric but geared toward kids and families more than anyone who dressed up for the “Phantom Menace” premiere nine years ago — there’s really nothing here that should offend those long-time fans, who must look at this as the final reminder that “Star Wars” isn’t courting them anymore. With all that said, “TCW” isn’t all that bad when taken on its own merits. The action is choreographically pedestrian but visually dazzling, the stylish art direction is a bold step outside the norm, and the writing certainly has more of a pulse than the recent trilogy of films ever did. “TCW” does contain one rather major wrinkle (not spoiled here) in the “Star Wars” universe, but the merit of even this will come down to perspective and individual taste. Longtime fans might be horrified, while those who don’t take it so seriously might find it adorable. (If that word sends a chill down your spine, consider yourself warned.)
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, six making-of Webisodes, three behind-the-scenes features, concept art gallery.

Opium: Diary of a Madwoman (NR, 2007, Koch Lorber)
Dr. Josef Brenner (Ulrich Thomsen) is, on top of being hooked on morphine, a man of creativity badly in need of a muse. Gizella (Kirsti Stubø), meanwhile, is convinced she has no brain and has been possessed by the devil. When the two meet at a mental institution for troubled women, something sparks, doctor connects with patient, and a case is made for the notion that there is someone for everyone. But while “Opium’s” base relationship — one provides hope, the other purpose — is easily understood, the movie that forms around it isn’t nearly as accommodating. To the contrary, “Opium” is almost brutally dreary, meandering awkwardly though opaque monologues and awash in the bizarre growing pains and twisted imagery that accompanied early 20th Century psychology. Fascination gives way to fatigue after a time, and once it becomes clear a connection to these characters is begging not to be made, the relentless melancholy raises questions of what “Opium’s” intentions could possibly have been. Don’t hold your breath looking for answers. In Hungarian with English subtitles, but an English dub is available as an option.
Extras: Interviews, behind-the-scenes feature, B-roll footage.

Games 11/4/08: Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, Far Cry 2

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Playstation 2, PC, Nintendo Wii, PSP, Nintendo DS
From: Treyarch/Shaba/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, drug reference, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

In “Spider-Man: Web of Shadows,” you star as Spider-Man and enjoy unlimited liberty to swing around New York City to whatever degree you please … just as you could in last year’s “Spider-Man 3.” Oh, and “Spider-Man 2” before that. Doesn’t Spidey ever do any traveling beyond the city limits?

But while a change of venue would’ve been nice, doing away with the sloppy hand-to-hand combat and dull mission objectives that bogged down those other two games is paramount.

On both fronts, “Shadows” scores direct hits. Spider-Man’s combat repertoire always has been expansive, but “Shadows” is the first game that not only gives the moves the oomph they deserve, but removes any static between what you’re trying to do and what Spidey does. “Shadows” mixes land, air, web and even wall-mounted combat in some pretty liberating ways, and practically every move in the arsenal controls and feels as it should.

Remarkably, the expansive fighting controls don’t come at the expense of the swinging controls, though you might initially think so if you don’t check the instruction manual. (The in-game documentation doesn’t reveal how to properly scale buildings until the first act practically is over.) The game’s camera occasionally flips out when the action shifts planes, but it almost always recovers quickly.

“Shadows'” mission selection isn’t wildly inspired compared to past games. To the contrary, almost every mission consists of some variation of going to area X and pounding Y amount of enemies. But by fronting with equally fantastic swinging and fighting mechanisms, the missions are fun simply for letting you go nuts with Spidey’s skill set.

If nothing else, the missions push forward the storyline, which benefits tremendously from having no film tie-in to impose on its creative freedom. It’s tighter than any of the three “Spider-Man” films, and some surprising instances of moral ambiguity allow you to pick your path en route to one of three different endings. “Shadows'” lack of movie ties also means a lack of A-list actors in the voice cast, but the no-names who stand in are miles more lively and much funnier than “SM3’s” sleepwalking stars, so it’s no loss at all.

Finally, while a change of venue once again would be appreciated in the next “Spider-Man” game, it must be said that this is the series’ best rendering of New York by far. The streets remain too sparsely populated, and some weird graphical glitches spring up here and there, but the visual leap forward from “SM3” is pretty remarkable given the short amount of time between the games’ respective releases.


Far Cry 2
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)

“Far Cry 2” is, by an arguably absurd margin, the year’s most immersive shooter.

Mostly, that’s a great thing. “FC2” — which shares no storyline ties to its predecessor — drops you in the middle of Africa, and you’re generally free to explore the rather massive area open to you as you see fit. A storyline guides the game, but there exists a massive degree of freedom within that space to collect assignments, form alliances and cause general mayhem on your terms.

Furthermore, everything — from shooting to driving to healing and all that exists in between — takes place in the first person. Given how stunningly good “FC2” looks, it’s easy to buy into the illusion that you’re walking in your character’s shoes. To its credit, the game never sacrifices control or gameplay to make this a possibility. It works.

Sometimes, though, that immersion goes overboard. Found and used guns are prone to jamming, which is a cool touch, but when every other gun jams every other time you engage in a firefight, it gets annoying. Similarly, while trekking across Africa is a thrill the first time around, the lengthy travels between missions grow old once you’re traveling down well-worn roads.

Especially disappointing is when “FC2” breaks its own illusion. It’s hard to convince yourself you’re in real Africa when (a) the continent is populated almost exclusively by mercenaries and (b) almost everyone instinctively wants to kill you regardless of reputation, standing and other factors. “FC2’s” enemy A.I. Is all over the place, too: Some can pick you off practically sight unseen, while a rare few won’t acknowledge your presence if you’re standing two feet away.

In other words, “FC2” can’t escape its fate as a shooter first and everything else second. And really, what’s so bad about that? All the important ingredients — cool guns, solid controls, stuff to blow up — are here, and “FC2” manages to fill its expansive playing field with a ton to do, all the while slipping in a story that drastically improves as time goes on.

Things aren’t quite so philosophically out there on the multiplayer (16-player, LAN or online) side. The usual modes show up, albeit with special “FC2” touches, and that’s good enough.

More impressive, at least on the console side, is the surprising inclusion of a full-featured map editor and distributor. A complete lack of documentation means a high barrier of entry, which, unfortunately, will keep a lot of players from doing anything special with it. At least you can download other players’ creations for free — a nice gesture in this era of overpriced map packs and other downloadable content.

Games 7/30/08: Siren: Blood Curse, Space Chimps, Roogoo

Siren: Blood Curse
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, strong language)

It takes little imagination to understand why games like “Resident Evil 4” and “Condemned” are popular. They’ve injected the horror genre with the kind of pick-up-and-play gameplay normally reserved for shooters, and with fantastic results.

Problem is, accessibility isn’t very scary. And until that somehow changes, there will always be a need for a game like “Siren: Blood Curse,” which embraces uncompromising design with a suffocating, brilliant enthusiasm that should thrill those with the stomach to handle it.

Available by download only and pieced out like a television show ($15 for a four-episode pack or $40 for all 12 at once), “Curse” reboots the “Siren” series by revisiting the original PS2 game, sprucing it up, remixing the story and adding concessions (most notably, clearer objectives and a map that illustrates them) to make it somewhat more palatable to a wider audience.

Again, though, don’t confuse that for accessibility. While “Curse” won’t remind you of the original “Resident Evil” in terms of control setup, the loose controls it does incorporate, along with a camera that’s far more hamstrung than most modern games allow, means you’ll struggle with things you typically can take for granted. Your visibility options are further crippled by the game’s extravagant use of darkness and fog — an old trick, but one that still works if done right.

Some will argue that such devices are the product of sloppy programming rather than design. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. “Curse’s” bread and butter is a mix of stealth and horror, and the partial (but never total) helplessness these elements bring forth is what makes the game such an unnerving experience. Though many situations put you in a position to fight back, just as many force you to tread quietly and run like hell if you tip off your presence. During those scenarios, “Curse” is tense to the point of panic-inducing and genuinely scary. Stumbling through the grainy darkness with a sure-footed enemy on your tail as a checkpoint lingers mere yards away is what horror games used to always be about, and it’s a sensation “Curse” recaptures with amazing conviction.

With those points in mind, “Curse” isn’t for all. The episodic style makes it easy to digest the game in small bites and piece it out, but it also makes it easy to feel squeamish and head for the exit when one scary episode ends and another lingers. Enter at your own risk: Something very special lurks inside, but only the angelically patient and strong at heart need apply.


Space Chimps
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Nintendo Wii and Playstation 2
From: Redtribe/Brash Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, crude humor, language, mild fantasy violence)

It’s been both interesting and disappointing to follow the emergence of Brash Entertainment, which promised to elevate the image of movie-based games but thus far has simply advanced perceptions that movie-licensed titles are the black sheep of the gaming family.

For whatever it’s worth, “Space Chimps” is the publisher’s best work to date, showing flashes of ingenuity that occasionally put it in the same ballpark (though never the same aisle) as the Mario- and Crash Bandicoot-fronted games it tries to emulate. “Chimps” isn’t afraid to switch gears between puzzle solving, combat, platforming and a few faster-paced challenges that send you grinding down rails or careening down a river, and the best of these challenges are legitimately fun and executed well.

Problem is, “Chimps” also displays flashes of rushed development, and not just a few. For every sequence Redtribe executes without incident, there’s another that’s hamstrung by inconsistent design, a camera that goes haywire or some other technical hang-up that causes you to miss jumps you should be able to complete with eyes closed. An extremely forgiving difficulty curve means you’ll get around these issues with minimal persistence, but watching a clever action sequence come undone by issues the developers were able to avoid during other parts of the game is nonetheless disappointing.

Additionally, the weakest aspect of “Chimps” — bland hand-to-hand combat against equally bland enemies — appears in greater abundance than any other aspect of the game. Nothing about the combat is broken, but nothing about it is particularly fun, either. Just mash the button, move to the next enemy and repeat.

But the biggest problem “Chimps” has remains the biggest issue with Brash’s portfolio overall: It ends far too soon. The single-player adventure will take players of reasonable ability little more than three hours to finish, and it doesn’t really command a return visit unless you enjoy collecting hidden items or trying to pass the levels in time attack mode. A two-player (offline only) mini-game mode offers some additional entertainment, but certainly not enough to quell any feelings of buyer’s remorse.

Were “Chimps” a budget title, the short length would be exponentially more forgivable, but it retails for $50 on the 360 and Wii and $30 on the Playstation 2. Value propositions like that are why we have game rentals and quick price drops, and until Brash understands that, those are the only options you should consider.


Downloadable game of the week

For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: SpiderMonk Entertainment/SouthPeak Games
Coming soon to retail for: Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

If ever a video game will teach you not to judge it by its cover, “Roogoo” is it. The object of the game is to match falling shapes — cylinders, cubes, stars and so on — with holes of the same shape. If that recalls images of the square-peg-in-round-hole toy babies play with, guess what? That’s exactly what “Roogoo” looks like, and during the ridiculously easy opening batch of levels, it’s also how the game plays. Fortunately, those lulled into false security by “Roogoo’s” pleasantly colorful look and unpleasantly easy first impression will do so at their own peril. Once acquaintances are made, the game wastes little time tweaking, remixing and piling onto the initial concept, and the challenge ramps up considerably — albeit entirely fairly — in a short amount of time. The concept proves surprisingly viable for a puzzle game concept, and you’ll likely never look at that silly toy quite the same way again. “Roogoo” ships with 45 single-player levels, which is a solid amount for the price, and those who want to throw virtual baby toy parties can enjoy the four-player multiplayer (local or online), which plays the same but employs the usual multiplayer puzzle game tricks.

Games 7/16/08: Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Unreal Tournament III (X360), Schizoid

Guitar Hero: Aerosmith
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii
From: Neversoft/RedOctane/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

The irony of a “Guitar Hero: Aerosmith” review? If you’re interested enough in the game to read it, it probably is of little value to you. That’s because “Aerosmith” isn’t so much a new game as an old cake with different icing, its value as a purchase entirely dependent on whether those new frills hold any of your interest.

Obviously, the chief selling point of “Aerosmith” (sold separately or bundled with a band-branded guitar peripheral) is Aerosmith. The band appears as characters in the game, and the career mode — though structured the same as before — now takes you through venues and time periods crucial to their career. Perhaps most importantly, “Aerosmith” includes 25 master tracks of selected songs from the Aerosmith catalog, along with 16 tracks from Joe Perry and artists (New York Dolls, The Cult, Joan Jett and Stone Temple Pilot, among others) chosen by the band for one reason or another.

That ratio, along with the relatively small size of the set list (“Guitar Hero III,” by contrast, included 73 songs for the same price), is what likely will rattle gamers the most.

The inclusion of other artists makes sense, because Activision would prefer to sell “Aerosmith” to more than just Aerosmith fans, but it also runs counter to the game’s chief selling point. Casual Aerosmith fans may feel the track list suits them just fine, but a full-priced game that owes its entire reason for being to an Aerosmith-themed facelift shouldn’t be for casual fans. Inevitably, the hardcore will wonder why an Aerosmith-branded game made room for a bunch of peripheral songs instead of, say, “Janie’s Got a Gun,” “Eat the Rich” or any number of the band’s hit ballads.

“Aerosmith’s” inability to stay true to its mission trickles down to the career mode. Playing as the band and working up to the stadium and Super Bowl Halftime Show (sans ‘N Sync, thankfully) will be a treat for fans, but some of the authenticity is lost when songs from different eras are mixed in with each other with no respect to chronology.

Beyond that, the game plays as one would expect, though the stiff difficulty found in “GH3” has leveled noticeably. Downloadable tracks from the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of “GH3” won’t work on “Aerosmith,” so if you’ve purchased a bunch of those and want to keep using them, that’s no small consideration if you’re on the fence about this one.


Unreal Tournament III
For: Xbox 360
From: Epic/Midway
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

Here’s a funny question: Is the Xbox 360 version of “Unreal Tournament III” a better single-player game than a multiplayer one?

The answer, believe it or not, is maybe.

No discussion of “UT3’s” tardy debut on the 360 is complete without mentioning what it, by no fault of its own, lacks. Xbox Live’s closed architecture forbids the sharing of user-created characters and levels, which was one of the chief selling points behind the PC the Playstation 3 versions. The 360 also doesn’t allow the use of a mouse and keyboard for gameplay, which (again) both other versions allow.

There’s also no telling whether gamers are interested in flocking to “UT3” seven months after it debuted on other hardware, which in turn makes it questionable whether the game can accrue a community of dedicated players. “UT3’s” best modes online center around objective-driven and teamwork-oriented gameplay, and the smaller the pool of players, the harder it will be to find a group that plays selflessly and as a team.

As such, and regardless of Epic’s intentions, you might find a better game offline against a bunch of bots than you will online against humans. (In all fairness, “UT3” plays perfectly over Live, with no noticeable bouts of lag or framerate dropping.)

Don’t misinterpret as a knock against the game. To the contrary, it’s a statement about how polished the thing really is in spite of its challenging circumstances.

“UT3? doesn’t reinvent so much as tweak the “Unreal Tournament” formula, which consists almost exclusively of high-speed, arena-style, first-person shooter matches with a heavy emphasis on reflexes over tactics. The guns are nice and unique (if prone to imbalance), the vehicles and hoverboards a joy to control, the maps satisfactorily diverse in terms of size and geometry.

Most importantly, the mechanics are suited perfectly to the platform. Epic slowed the action down just a touch to accommodate the reflex disadvantage that comes with using a control pad instead of a mouse and keyboard, and it strikes a perfect balance that keeps “UT3” faster than other shooters while also keeping it manageable with a little adjustment.

This level of polish trickles all the way down to the game’s artificial intelligence, which is shockingly good and perfectly tuned to the game’s respectively difficulty settings. “UT3’s” campaign mode is no great shakes in terms of storytelling, but it’s pretty meaty in terms of content, and the enemies you face are surprisingly human in how they advance and react. Though A.I. matches can’t match the excitement level of a free-for-all against friends, it does make a surprisingly good substitute if no such option is available.


Downloadable Game of the Week

For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Torpex Games/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

“Schizoid” is, by it’s own definition, “the most co-op game ever.” While the superlative is arguable, the game has a point: You don’t want to play this one alone. In “Schizoid,” you control either a blue or orange ship, and the goal is to fly around the screen and crash into enemies of the same color while avoiding enemies of the opposite color. As you might have guessed, your opposite-colored ally has to do the opposite, and clearing the screen is how you advance through the game’s 120 levels. “Schizoid” does some cool tricks with polarity to inject strategy into what otherwise might have been just another mindless arcade romp, and the game is quite fun if you team up with a friend over Xbox Live (or, even better, on the same couch). Just don’t expect the same level of fun if you’re playing alone: “Schizoid’s” co-op A.I. is respectable but prone to failure, and the Uberschizoid mode, which lets you control both ships at once, is far too maddeningly difficult for all but the most inhumanly gifted players.