Games 4/24/12: Trials Evolution, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings EE (360), Devil May Cry HD Collection, StarDrone Extreme

Trials Evolution
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: RedLynx/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)
Price: $15

Purely in terms of how certain returning features relate to their counterparts in 2009’s “Trials HD,” the modestly-titled “Trials Evolution” is very aptly named.

As a description for the total package, though, it’s comically understated.

Superficially, “Evolution” indeed looks like the evolution of the same formula that made “Excitebike” so cherished on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s a motorbike game. It’s set on a plane that’s not quite 2D but not quite 3D either. The controls — one trigger for gas, another for brakes, and the left stick to shift the weight and angle of the bike — are as elementary as ever.

But “Evolution” (like “HD” before it) is a whole different animal with regard to its obsessive attention to the physics of speed, weight and angles. Even the most minor applications of gas, brakes and tilt can spell the difference between a brilliant run and a disastrous one. You’ll receive a track’s bronze medal simply for finishing it, but if you want the gold (zero crashes, a reasonably fast completion time), you’ll have to continually manage all three facets to maneuver through some wildly creative obstacle courses. (“Evolution’s” track designs are, predictably, a cut above “HD’s” in terms of scope and imagination.)

If you played “HD,” you already know these basics, and you likely also remember how quickly that game’s difficulty spiked from zero to infinity.

This isn’t a problem “Evolution” has. Getting golds on easy- and medium-difficulty tracks remains challenging, but the insane bike gymnastics required to even finish many of “HD’s” medium-difficulty tracks are reserved solely for the highest echelon of “Evolution’s” difficulty tier.

Even if you were good enough to handle “HD’s” tracks and didn’t need a more gradual difficulty climb, this likely is a positive development. “Evolution’s” Xbox Live integration makes competing with friends’ times even more fun than chasing those medals, and you need your friends to finish those tracks before they can offer up a high score to conquer.

Besides, “Evolution” won’t run out of nasty challenges until its large community runs out of players.

For starters, you can race other players this time around. “Evolution’s” multiplayer mode (four players, online or offline) is a glorified ghost race insofar that you can’t collide with the other three riders on the track, and it’s a literal ghost race on certain elaborate tracks that have terrain-altering switches each rider must be able to activate separately to keep things fair. But it’s still a race to the finish line against three other riders you at least can partially see, and that’s all it needs to achieve the intense air of a multiplayer battle where one mistake can make or break your finish position.

“Evolution’s” multiplayer is presented in a circuit-style format — a collection of races, with the best combined performance taking top honors — and includes a persistent upgrade track that’s good for unlocking new gear for your rider.

But “Evolution’s” real showpiece is the upgraded track editor, which no longer is merely a track editor. As it was in “HD,” the editor is accessible enough to grasp despite being so powerful that RedLynx itself used it to build tracks. The sharing interface is night-and-day improved, with numerous means of filtering creations based on popularity and difficulty, and every track has a global leaderboard to attack.

But in addition to offering a fresh handful of weird single-player minigames in which you launch yourself like a javelin or replace the bike with skis, “Evolution” blows the editor’s doors off and lets you design minigames of your own. User-created events already exist where you can shoot hoops, go bowling and fire a steerable cannonball, and RedLynx itself built a first-person shooter. There’s no telling what will materialize once players truly get acclimated with the tools, but it’s a safe bet that “Evolution” won’t run out of new content to discover anytime soon.


The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: CD Projekt/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs)
Price: $60

If it’s possible for anything to emerge triumphant from the fallout over “Mass Effect 3’s” roundly disappointing (and, according to no less than the Better Business Bureau, misleading) ending, you’re looking right at it. Save for Bethesda’s games, no game anywhere gives you the power to carve your destiny as measurably as does “The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.” And even Bethesda’s endgames don’t pay off on the choices you make as satisfyingly as this one does.

That’s a credit to “Kings” taking the concept of role-playing to a certain limit but not past it. Though dauntingly thick with side quests and opportunities to explore freely, “Kings” still subtly guides players through a narrative that’s more Bioware (cutscenes, dialogue trees, significant story decisions that fork the road) than Bethesda. You’re playing as Geralt, the titular Witcher, and while his destiny rests in your hands, his personality and physical makeup come pre-designed (and for good reason).

Within that structure, though, things can get wonderfully messy.

“Kings” usually tips its hand when you’re at a crossroads that can shift the makeup of the story and the world at large. But the charismatically blurry lines that comprise the personalities of Geralt and his supporting cast — imagine “Game of Thrones'” irreverent take on fantasy instead of your typical straight-faced and straight-laced role-playing game — allow those crossroads to cloud the discrepancy between doing the right thing and doing the desirable thing. Consequently, it isn’t a question of if some seemingly innocuous decision you make early leaves a surprising mark later, but when and how often it happens. From “Kings'” structure to its personality to the respect it pays to player intelligence and maturity, this is the new standard-bearer.

Though not easily mastered (which may be great or distressing news depending on your stance on hand-holding), the act of actually playing the game is similarly enjoyable.

“Kings'” third-person combat finds a happy Western RPG medium. It isn’t as fast and smooth as “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning’s” action game-style combat, but it’s in the same ballpark, and it trades in some of that finesse for an extra level of depth and danger.

Specifically, success in combat entails vigorous management of your inventory as well as your adversaries. Where “Amalur” lets you hack away with abandon, “Kings” quickly delivers smart and powerful enemies who will punish you if you don’t play defense and bring a game plan into battle. Geralt’s arsenal includes traps and fortifications as well as swords and daggers, and establishing them as a first line of defense is — along with executing optimally-timed dodges, blocks and counters — incredibly valuable. If you want to have a healing potion handy in battle, you’ll need to mix it yourself ahead of time, and if you want your blades at their sharpest, you’d best oil them up before walking into a fight. “Kings” provides a seemingly bottomless sea of weapons, clothing, special ingredients and combat strategies, but it’s entirely your job to put the pieces together and survive once the world opens up.

Happily, the most notable additions to this enhanced edition — which arrives 11 months after “Kings” originally appeared on the PC — work in the service of user-friendliness. Along with a brief but invaluable in-game tutorial that lays out the combat basics, “Kings” ships with a 90-page handbook that exhaustively walks through every facet of the game. The handbook is loaded with spoilers and should be regarded as a last resort if the bevy of quests and menus are threatening to chase you way entirely, but it more than addresses the grievances players had about the PC version being completely user-unfriendly.


Devil May Cry HD Collection
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40

On the precipice of a full-scale “Devil May Cry” reboot, Capcom has given in to another popular trend by rereleasing the series’ three Playstation 2 entrants in high definition.

Or rather, it kind of does that, if you don’t count the parts of “Devil May Cry” and “Devil May Cry 2” that remain in slightly blurry fullscreen. The standard-definition content is relegated to menus and cutscenes, and all gameplay in all three games is presented in widescreen with aged but HD-friendly graphics. But the strange first impression this oversight gives is a unintentional sign of things to come if you fully plunder “Devil May Cry HD Collection’s” depths.

Regardless of your memories of it, the original “DMC” — which, in 2001, broke ground and established a blueprint for contemporary action games like “God of War” and “Ninja Gaiden” — has aged considerably.

Conceived initially as a “Resident Evil” game, “DMC” doesn’t quite shake the suffocating fixed cameras and clumsy cause-and-effect puzzles that had already begun wearing out their welcome 11 years ago. Replacing “Evil’s” flaccid combat with a fluid arsenal of melee and ranged attacks was enough to turn heads and reorient the confused trajectory 3D action games were riding back then, but by today’s standards — and even compared to “Devil May Cry 3,” which is this collection’s jewel — Dante’s original repertoire is limited and stunted in its dexterity.

“DMC2,” released in 2003, was panned even then, and it holds steady as this collection’s undisputed dud. Signs of things to come are everywhere: Dante’s skillset is larger and more dynamic, the game’s areas are larger, and the fixed camera is slightly less ridiculous in terms of triggering claustrophobic reactions. But the original game’s personality has vanished, and the larger areas and arsenal are wasted on some demoralizingly drab level designs and enemy arrangements. “DMC” wasn’t necessarily masterful in either regard, but “DMC2” isn’t even trying.

That leaves the third game, and if there’s a reason to revisit this collection at all, 2005’s “DMC3” most assuredly is it.

It’s here where Capcom catches and passes the games for which it initially paved the way: Dante’s combat is fluid in a way that remains fresh even seven years later, his personality returns in force, the level and enemy designs justify the full prioritization of combat over puzzle solving, and even the fixed cameras feel somewhat (though not completely) dynamic.

Beyond the dated graphics, “DMC3” is the one game here that can hang in 2012 without leaning on nostalgic crutches to do so. It also remains better realized than HD-native “Devil May Cry 4,” which looks considerably prettier but regresses in all other respects. The most pronounced ding against “DMC3” was its completely ruthless difficulty, but a special edition — which is the version that’s included here — addressed that with a softer additional difficulty setting. (Masochists, fear not: The original difficulty remains intact as well.)

As a total package, “Collection” is pretty no-frills. The three games are walled off within the disc to the point where if you start one, you have to reboot the entire collection to get back to the collection’s menu screen. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions of the game naturally come with achievements and trophies to respectively unlock, but there’s little else in the way of bonus content beyond some art galleries. Surprisingly, “Collection” doesn’t even include a trailer of the rebooted “DmC: Devil May Cry,” which releases later this year and (so far) looks primed to justify Capcom’s tap of the reset button.


StarDrone Extreme
For: Playstation Vita (via Playstation Network)
From: Beatshapers/Orb Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $4

To really understand “StarDrone Extreme” is to see it in action rather than read about it on paper, because while it combines things we’ve all seen before (a touch of pinball, a touch of “Breakout” and a touch of “Spider-Man”-style web slinging physics), putting into words how it all comes together doesn’t do justice to the unwieldy but very satisfying way these elements collide. Though other objectives factor in, the fundamental goal in “Extreme” is to manage those physics in a way that gets your ship around each of the 60 levels and clears the area of collectible pieces (or, later on, enemies) in as little time as possible. The catch is that you don’t control the ship directly, but instead use objects in the level to sling and bounce it around indirectly. Those levels are loaded with enough obstacles (some dangerous, some not) to make getting around, much less quickly, easier said than done. For the impatient, it may be too unwieldy to even enjoy. But for those who love obsessively replaying levels in hopes of shaving a second off their time and achieving leaderboard supremacy, this is pretty much bliss. The truly bold will appreciate the clever ability to adjust “Extreme’s” speed on a 10-point scale, which makes ever faster times possible for those steady enough to handle the spike in recklessness. Save for a few Vita-specific levels, most of “Extreme” is ported from last year’s PS3 version of “StarDrone.” The good news there is that the PS3 and Vita share a cross-compatible leaderboard. The bad news? “Extreme” inexplicably excludes “StarDrone’s” button controls in favor of touch-only options. They work great — arguably better than the buttons, even — but why deny players a choice they previously had?

Games 4/17/11: Fez, Supremacy MMA Unrestricted, Anomaly Warzone Earth

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

Following a quick introductory level and an amusing sequence that will mess with the heads of anyone who has watched an Xbox 360 (or two, or three) fail on them, “Fez” reveals the little trick that has made its release so hotly anticipated for some four years now.

The best part? It arguably — very arguably, admittedly — isn’t even the best trick in “Fez’s” bag.

During that opening level, “Fez” pretty customarily makes the kind of first impression you might expect from a modern-day 2D platformer. As the obscenely cheerful Gomez, you can run, jump and climb up certain walls and ledges, and the goal — reach the exit door at the topmost point of a mostly vertical level — is so obvious that the game seems reluctant to even point it out. Because there are no enemies, time limits or consequences for failure — making a fatal jump into a perilous spot simply places you back at your jump-off point — the reluctance is understandable, because success is inevitable.

But past that point, it’s a different story. “Fez’s” jubilantly silly story (sort of) explains the details, but the nutshell explanation is that your flat, 2D world is now a rare combination of still flat but in three dimensions.

Essentially, like sides of a cube, a level in “Fez” consists of four flat planes instead of one. Press the right or left triggers and the entire level unflattens into a cube, rotates on its axis and flattens again.

The only exception is Gomez, who remains exactly where he was. Platforms, walls, and other objects that were perpendicular to your point of view are now parallel (or, if you rotated twice, turned inside out and reversed), and with the level flattened, objects and areas that sat far apart at one angle might be right next to each other at this angle. Hop over to that now-nearby platform, rotate the level back, and suddenly you’re on the other side of the level.

“Fez’s” goals — find enchanted cube pieces (among other items) and keep on unlocking and opening those exit doors — remain dead simple. But when a cube piece sits impossibly out of reach and you have to find the right sequence of rotations to get over there or trigger the sequence of events that brings it within reach, the achievement of those goals is no longer so inevitable.

The (arguable) most beautiful thing about this arrangement is that “Fez” remains reluctant to explain itself. Gomez’s friends are on hand to marvel in disbelief as you rotate their entire world at will, but very little of the game’s dialogue serves to explain anything beyond the absolute basics.

The deal “Fez” brokers is simple. There are no enemies, time limits, scoring systems or failure penalties, and you’re free to jump back and forth between levels and solve riddles in whatever manner you discover them. In return, “Fez” tells you next to nothing about its riddles and how to even find, never mind solve, many of them. The map, though not entirely useless, seems deliberately convoluted. If you’re missing a few items from an area you last visited hours earlier, finding your way back there can be as tricky as solving some of its riddles.

But getting back there isn’t a chore when it entails uncovering numerous surprise discoveries along the way. “Fez” is that impossibly rare game that’s deviously challenging and absurdly relaxing at the same time, and the carte blanche it provides to truly and freely explore a world that’s as mysterious as it is unabashedly cheerful is a wonderful case of the journey, rather than its completion, being a game’s reward. The lack of stricter structure and harsher peril is bound to turn some off, but for those who derive as much joy from discovering as they do conquering, this is not to be missed.


Supremacy MMA Unrestricted
For: Playstation Vita
From: Kung Fu Factory/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs, violence)
Price: $40

“Supremacy MMA Unrestricted” is, without a doubt, the best mixed martial arts game in the Playstation Vita’s library.

Unfortunately, that’s partly because it’s also the only one. And while some MMA action is better than nothing, there’s enough working against “Unrestricted” to temper the enthusiasm serious fans may have for the sport’s Vita debut.

Most glaring is the uphill battle against UFC’s and EA Sports’ games for fighter name recognition — a problem “Unrestricted” arguably eschews by opting for a mostly fictional roster of fighters based on real-life fighters whom casual fans likely wouldn’t recognize anyway.

The fictional roster allows “Unrestricted” to take liberty and give most fighters a unique storyline to complete. The stories are short and won’t win awards for creativity. But it’s an angle the other games can’t take, especially with a level of grit that doesn’t always flatter the fighters. The cutscenes, distilled through voice-acted motion comics, look and sound good, too.

“Unrestricted” also breaks convention by including woman fighters, and here it does opt for real-life fighters. Problem is, only two — Felice Herrig and Michele Gutierrez — are included, and they can only fight each other. Unsurprisingly, their storylines wrap after 10 minutes because there’s nowhere else for them to go.

The actual act of fighting is a similar case of enticing and off-putting, though it doubtlessly will lean toward the latter for MMA purists.

Like its peers, “Unrestricted” accommodates multiple fight disciplines (wrestling, kickboxing, Jiu-Jitsu and so on) and provides the necessary means for ground, standing, striking and submission combat. Different fighters succeed differently based on their disciplines: Focusing on strikes if you’re a submission specialist will, for instance, probably end poorly.

Unlike its peers, “Unrestricted” distills its action through what essentially resembles a non-MMA fighting game. You get a lifebar, and the only way to win a fight is to drain your opponent’s lifebar. An opportunistic counterattack will hurt more than a plain strike, but there’s no way to thread the timing needle and land one perfect punch that turns a losing contest into a knockout victory. Similarly, the only way to make an opponent tap out is to perform a submission when his lifebar is already near zero. “Unrestricted” rewards players for focusing on specific body parts by giving attacks on weakened areas a damage premium, but the facets of a tense MMA fight — both on the technical side and the thrilling, this-can-turn-in-an-instant side — are dampened when the lifebar rules all.

“Unrestricted” also mimics fighting games by taking place almost exclusively on a 2D plane. You can move more freely to change stances during a ground attack, but when both fighters are upright, they’re always facing each other without any means to circle around and use the octagon.

These aren’t minor shortcomings if you want a true-blue MMA experience and not a fighting game with MMA trimmings.

But if you can settle for the latter, “Unrestricted” at least does that pretty well. Its handling of multiple disciplines certainly suffices, and each fighter has a nice complement of moves they perform merely adequately as well as expertly. You can mix button and touch controls freely — escaping submissions is ideal with touch, while basic attacks work best with buttons — and pretty much every move has a weak spot that can be countered and reversed if you time it correctly.

“Unrestricted” also performs sufficiently in the features department. Along with storylines for 14 fighters, the 16 male fighters each have separate upgrade paths that unlock customization bonuses. A training mode and two tournament styles round out the single-player options. A no-frills multiplayer option (two players, local/online) is available as well, but attempts to find an online match (and sometimes even connect to the server) proved unsuccessful.


Anomaly Warzone Earth
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, Android, Windows PC, Mac
From: 11 bit studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, language)
Price: $10

Tower defense games have grown so prevalent that even the ones that mix in other genres and rewrite the rules of engagement are cropping up at a dangerous rate. “Anomaly Warzone Earth” dials it back with a presentation and control scheme that’s pure fundamental tower defense, but it flips the script by giving you the keys to the offense — a convoy of tanks, mechs and other vehicles — and tasking you with blasting through an alien defense. The general rules of tower defense apply, but rather than lay out towers and turrets, you’re assembling a convoy lineup and drawing a path for it to follow through and around the streets of Baghdad’s and Tokyo’s urban battlegrounds. Vehicle upgrades and repairs replace tower upgrades, a handful of power-ups let you devise temporary defenses for your offense, and when all else fails, a terrific Tactical View interface lets you re-chart your course at any time. Nothing “Earth” does represents a seismic shift for tower defense, but the change of possession is a welcome twist for a genre that could use a few more of them. The game’s strategic interfaces are polished, the in-game action is really visually impressive, and the maps grow considerably elaborate as the multiple campaigns — one traditional and built around a storyline, the others driven more by scores, enemy waves, time limits and survival — progress. “Earth’s” Xbox 360 version is late out the gate compared to its counterparts, and the control pad is (while plenty sufficient) less ideal than the other versions’ touchscreen and mouse controls. But along with the Tokyo missions that previously were exclusive to the Mac and PC, the 360 version gets a set of six Tactical Trials scenarios that (true to the name) task you with making creative use of limited resources to complete trials that play like riddles as much as they do missions.

Games 3/20/12: Yakuza: Dead Souls, Crush3d, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, Motorstorm RC

Yakuza: Dead Souls
For: Playstation 3
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol)
Price: $60

It has always taken a special kind of person to truly appreciate the “Yakuza” series, which reengineers flaws into points of endearment like few (if any) other series can.

“Yakuza: Dead Souls” takes that bizarre two-way affection into a whole new arena, but it never loses itself in doing so. An already confluence of brawling and storytelling goes slightly nuts with the addition of zombies, firearms and more sustained action than has typically been present in these games, but everything that comprised those earlier games — including the weirdly wonderful tug-o-war between archaic and charming — remains intact.

“Souls,” perhaps obviously, isn’t central to the “Yakuza” canon, which up to now has crammed several television series’ worth of violence, drama, comedy, family feuds, criminal dynasties, troublemakers and complete weirdos into four numbered games and a spinoff that released only in Japan. “Souls” takes “Yakuza 4’s” setting and premise — once again dropping you into the shoes of four deeply unique main characters — and tells a what-if story in which the undead clog the streets and the usual friends and enemies enact a moratorium on their squabbles.

Along with the setting and characters, most everything else with which “Yakuza” is synonymous returns in “Souls.” In safe zones walled off (for now) from monsters, you’ll find a new assortment of strange people to meet and assist in side stories. Hilariously weird minigames and diversions abound. The random troublemakers who pick fights in the street have disappeared (perhaps a nod to your new shared enemy), but when you’re battling zombies, the full brunt of “Yazuka’s” brawling controls — from suplexing zombies to using everything from bats to bicycles as weapons — lay at your disposal. As always, it’s a fast and exciting 3D answer to the great 2D brawlers that thrived in the 1990s.

But while hitting a zombie in the face with a coffee table is effective in a pinch, you’ll need some real firepower when “Souls” drops you into an area crawling with several dozen undead.

Enter guns and grenades — and what a strange entrance it is. “Souls” crams three flavors of shooting controls into its existing gameplay with reckless disregard for elegance, and their respective effectiveness is inversely proportional to pretty much every third-person shooter made since roughly 2004.

Whereas holding the L2 trigger to aim down the sights of a gun increases precision in most shooters, it’s generally a nightmare here — sabotaged by a camera unfit to handle it, as well as Sega’s baffling decision to map aiming to the left instead of right stick. (You can’t move while aiming this way.) The method is handy when sniping from a distance, but laughably worthless otherwise.

A middle option, wherein you hold L1 to strafe and automatically fire at enemies in your line of sight, works a little better — except when pressing L1 causes you to strafe facing the wrong way, unable to turn around, even if you’re facing the right way when you press it. It happens randomly, but also regularly.

Ultimately, the best (and, by an factor of 10, most fun) way to mow down zombies is to not even aim at all. As you run through a room hammering on the shoot button, your character shoots whichever zombie is nearest by in his field of view. You can turn on a dime and clear a room in the blink of an eye, especially once you unlock a visually spectacular special ability that lets you use gas lines, circuit boxes and even loose steel girders as bullet-activated hazards.

Played this way, the shooting is fast, exciting, effortless and silly in exactly the right way — in other words, a perfect complement to everything else “Yakuza” has done so wonderfully for so long.


For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Zoë Mode/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $35

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about “Fez,” an upcoming, long-in-development puzzle/platforming game that literally turns the 2D platformer on its side.

But five years ago, an unheralded game named “Crush” did it first — and incredibly well — on the Playstation Portable. “Crush3d” takes steps forward and backward in remaking that game for a new system and (hopefully) new audience. But everything it did so brilliantly is preserved and, five years on, as clever and malevolent as ever.

(As a sidebar, the original “Crush” is available for $10 on the Playstation Network for the Vita and PSP. The more you know.)

The object of “Crush3d’s” 40 levels, as explained by a surprisingly chatty storyline, is to collect enough marbles to open a portal to the exit and then reach that exit. But accessing the marbles and the portal isn’t a simple matter of running and jumping over to them, because they typically sit impossibly out of reach.

Instead, you must rotate the level itself, turning it on its side or even vertically so that you’re viewing it from above. And after doing that, you have to “crush” it and flatten the 3D arrangement into a 2D one. Flattening the perspective connects platforms that exist nowhere near each other in the 3D space, and once they’re in close proximity according to your new perspective, you can hop from one to the next like they were next to each other the whole time. Uncrush the level, and suddenly you’re on a completely different plane.

All of that perspective manipulation transforms a completely pedestrian platformer into a beastly mental challenge, and “Crush3d” very quickly makes you work for it if you want to perfect a level (all marbles collected, the optional trophy and concept art piece discovered, and no hints used). Before long, the difficulty curve sharpens with the addition of pushable obstacles, moving platforms, giant cockroaches and blocks that behave differently based on color and dimension.

If that sounds intimidating, mission accomplished. But “Crush3d,” to its credit, doesn’t antagonize unnecessarily by throwing up a time limit or penalizing your score if you take your time solving a level. You might resort to some trial and error just for the sake of doing so when things really get elaborate and you reach your wits’ end, but unless that cockroach is giving chase, you’re free to take your time exploring a level without the nagging sensation that “Crush3d” is rushing you through the problem-solving process.

With that said, if time and crush limits appeal to your masochistic side, a 40-level Trophy Mode — wherein you must complete a level using only so many crushes, and within a par time — is available as a complement to the main story. Finding a trophy in the campaign unlocks the corresponding level in this mode, so keep your eyes peeled.)

“Crush3d’s” gameplay and puzzle design will look wholly familiar to those familiar with “Crush” on the PSP. Stylistically, though, it’s another story.

The game’s use of stereoscopic 3D is excellent — no surprise given the emphasis on perspective perception, but worth noting all the same. But “Crush’s” unique visual style — dystopian but also colorful and silly, with some likably weird graphic novel panels bringing a grouchy but whimsical story to life — has been shelved in favor of something a little less exciting. “Crush3d’s” presentation is pleasant, with brighter backdrops and a friendlier (though not saccharine) makeover for the characters, but it doesn’t stand out the way “Crush’s” look does even to this day.


Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Slant Six/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $60

If you assembled a focus group of people who’ve never played a “Resident Evil” game and tasked them with designing the next one, “Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City” very well might be what they conceive by day’s end.

That isn’t damning criticism so much as faint praise, because “City” at least fulfills its unimaginative ideals with competency. It holds no candle to a traditional “RE” game. But as a cover-based, co-op-capable third-person squad shooter that hits every bullet point an online, experience points-driven, competitive/cooperative shooter needs to hit? Sure, why not.

With that said, the best thing about “City’s” cover shooter ambitions might be how it largely abandons them early in the campaign, which you can play alone with three A.I. partners, online with three human partners, or some mix therein. (Sadly, there’s no local co-op option.)

“City” drops you into the shoes of an Umbrella Corporation-appointed cleanup squad, tasked with removing all traces of its involvement in sparking the Raccoon City zombie apocalypse. In other words, you finally get to play out the saga’s formative episodes from the bad guy’s side.

Without spoiling specifics, the first leg of this PR campaign pits you against government soldiers who are armed both with guns and intelligence. (Hence, the need to fight from cover.)

The results are passable but sloppy. There’s no button to stick to cover: “City” does it automatically, which means it sometimes doesn’t when you need it to and does when you don’t. That, and the occasional unresponsiveness that happens when you try swapping weapons, detract from a control scheme that otherwise covers the basics adequately.

Fortunately — and inevitably, because they’re “RE’s” reason for being — the zombies indeed rush in. And once they do, “City” becomes 10 percent cover shooter and 90 percent run and gun.

The change in tempo doesn’t fully nullify “City’s” shortcomings, especially when it descends into chaos during mission-ending objectives that cram levels with zombies and soldiers galore. But the action is lively, and it’s fun to take on the zombie horde with degrees of weaponry and dexterity that wouldn’t make sense in a more traditional “RE” game.

As co-op experiences go, “City” is once again satisfactory. Setting up foursomes is easy, and teams that protect (and, in the event of a bad zombie fight, disinfect) each other will find those aforementioned descents into chaos much easier to bear.

If, however, you play alone, be prepared to fight alone. A.I. partners can kill a zombie or two, but they provide shoddy protection and can’t revive you like you can them. (If you turn zombie or become incapacitated, the game halts and whisks you back to the nearest checkpoint.) Cold though it sounds, your A.I. partners are best used as bait while you flank enemies from behind.

Other bullet points abound. The campaign is roughly six hours long, but with six very different (and separately upgradable) character classes to play as, there’s incentive to go play it again. Stats persist across the whole game, so you can apply your unlocked perks to “City’s” competitive multiplayer suite as well.

The competitive multiplayer (eight players, online only) features “RE”-flavored variants of team deathmatch, capture the flag and territory control. A Heroes Mode, meanwhile, lets you play as famous faces from games’ past and take sides in the standoff between Umbrella and the government.

Again, the action is fun but customary — albeit with a wrinkle. The multiplayer arenas are crawling with zombies, and once again, they’re the common enemy of both opposing forces. Having to manage boatloads of A.I. enemies while also outwitting more formidable human opponents — who are dealing with the same zombies while taking you on — adds some serious (and, unlike the chaos mentioned earlier, welcome) bedlam to what otherwise is pretty standard four-on-four action.


Motorstorm RC
For: Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita
From: Evolution Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10 on PS3, free on Vita for a limited time

If you ever imagined how amusing it might be to see “Motorstorm’s” hulking off-road vehicles shrunk down to RC car form, just wait until you see one of them flip over and land haplessly on its plastic back. To an arguable fault — at least, if you come in expecting a normal racing game — “Motorstorm RC” takes the gimmick and runs wild with it. The tracks — which “RC” displays from an overhead perspective a la “Super Off Road” or “R.C. Pro-Am” — are miniaturized, toy-car replicas of courses from all four previous “Motorstorm” games, and the vehicles’ handling physics are appropriately light but (like an RC car) just a little bit stubborn in the handling department. “RC’s” default controls mimic those of a remote control, with one stick (or R2 trigger on the PS3) handling the gas and brake while the other stick handles steering. You can customize these settings to use buttons if you wish. But if you want to beat your friends’ ghost times and get gold medal scores across all 48 events — a mix of races, time trials, overtake challenges and drift competitions — you’re advised to master the analog acceleration in order to tame that stubborn handling. Drive these vehicles like they’re regular video game cars, and you’ll pay dearly and regularly. Outside of four-player splitscreen on the PS3 version, “RC” lacks any kind of head-to-head multiplayer component. But its terrific integration of friends’ scores across all modes means you’re constantly competing with them anyway. Your scores and progress sync across both versions if you own both, and while the Vita version is free for a limited time thanks to Toyota, buying either version gets you the other version for free when it returns to regular price. How cool is that?

Games 3/13/12: MLB 12 The Show, Nicktoons MLB 3D, SSX, Jak and Daxter Collection, Journey

MLB 12 The Show
For: Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita
From: San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $60 for PS3, $40 for Vita, $80 for bundle (through April 10)

Nicktoons MLB 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Black Lantern Studios/2K Play
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $30

“MLB The Show” has been the undisputed king of baseball sims for at least five years running, and even though the 2012 edition’s additions rank on the weak side, this remains the case.

For the second straight year, a new pitching mechanic leads off the roster of changes. But in contrast to last year’s excellent Pure Analog system, the Pulse Pitching method relies too much on a gimmicky (and counterproductively touchy) timing mechanic that doesn’t really replicate the sensation of making a perfect pitch. With practice, it can be mastered, but “MLB12’s” other delivery methods — Pure Analog, Meter and Classic — are more fun. Fortunately, all remain available to use and tweak as needed via an extensive options screen.

“MLB12’s” flashiest new feature — Diamond Dynasty, available only in the PS3 version — attempts to replicate the success of EA Sports’ Ultimate Team modes, in which you assemble teams of players from virtual packs of cards you buy with in-game (or, of course, real) money. But while the seeds of compulsion are there if you’re willing to look for them, Diamond Dynasty clearly is a rookie effort — all over the place in terms of confusing interfaces, and spotty with how it facilitates team management and rewards.

The better modes — Season/Franchise, the role-playing Road to the Show — are available on both Vita and PS3, and those who purchase both versions can share the same cloud save file between both. If you love the game but never have time to play an entire season on your couch, the flexibility this entails may be the best news there is about this year’s game.

As per annual tradition, there’s more good news in between the lines. A brand-new baseball physics engine should quickly make its presence known to longtime players, and Road to the Show finally lets you begin your minor league career as a starter instead of on the bench. Tweaks have been made to the way A.I. managers and general managers handle lineups and trades, respectively, and every detail of the Marlins’ hideous new uniforms and home run structure has been recreated in exquisitely ugly detail.

Most importantly, none of the core fundamentals that have made this series the best in the business have been broken.

2K Sports’ simulation counterpart continues to lag behind and spin its glitchy, unrefined wheels. But 2K Play engineered a pleasant surprise last season with “NickToons MLB,” which took MLB players and teams, sprinkled in Nickelodeon characters and stadiums, and powered it with the terrifically fast (and surprisingly deep) engine that originally powered its outstanding “The Bigs” arcade baseball games.

Sadly, “Nicktoons MLB 3D” arrives on the Nintendo 3DS in alarmingly bad shape. The personality and players are there, as are the modes (season, tournament, minigames) and intricacies that made last year’s game more sophisticated than your typical arcade baseball game.

But where it matters most — gameplay — is where “3D” falls completely on its face. Instead of fast, it’s unflatteringly slow and prone to framerate stutters. And while the console version’s responsive controls made every facet of the game fun to play, “3D” can’t even get the basics right. The half-second lag between button press and the moment a batter actually swings the bat is impossible to forgive in a sport where timing is king. “3D” updates the rosters for 2012 and adds a few new ballparks and modes not found in the console versions, but the shoddy foundation completely invalidates whatever upside it has to offer.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics, mild violence)
Price: $60

When EA Sports first unveiled its rebooted “SSX” — complete with gritty, humorless overtones and “Call of Duty”-esque cutscenes to complement the otherwise familiar snowboarding action — the groans that met it halfway were fierce enough to send the studio into retool mode. Many months later, what we ultimately get — colorful, cheerful, loaded with impossible tricks and exaggerated physics — is a good approximation of how the first proper “SSX” game in nearly seven years should look, play and even innovate.

Except, of course, when it isn’t. Don’t holster that groan just yet.

Under the right conditions — on a wide mountain with room to trick creatively and in an event centered purely around racing or accumulating large trick scores — “SSX” sings as beautifully as ever. It’s blazing fast, stringing tricks (either with the new, stick-centric method or a scheme that approximates classic controls) is extremely easy, and exploiting the mountain for one incredible combo after another is blissfully fun.

But for every time “SSX” gets it perfectly right, there’s an instance where it inexplicably flubs it.

Some runs, including a handful that lead off the single-player campaign, take place in tight runs overcrowded with ramps and grindable lines. Botch one jump, and it’s too easy to ignite a chain where your rider is haplessly missing opportunity after opportunity while you simply wait for a clear patch of snow on which to rebuild the deck.

Much worse, however, is when “SSX” throws you down a mountain that’s plagued by bottomless drops around and even within it. Annoying though the chains of missed opportunities can be, they pale in comparison to the non-thrill of pulling a spectacular big-air trick, only to land on a ridge that slides you into a pit you couldn’t foresee when originally taking off. “SSX” includes a limited-use rewind feature, perhaps as penance for the cheapness of such turns of fortune. But even then, your momentum is disrupted and your score dinged.

Though the race and trick events are occasionally undermined by some unreasonably inhuman A.I. Opponents, “SSX” frustrates most during the new survival events, where the goal simply is to complete the run. Your rewinds are severely limited here, and the mountains tend to be severely broken. That means lots of cheap falls, which means lots of trial and error. Surviving these runs is a simple matter of memorizing the layout and riding sensibly instead of tricking out, but when was the last time you played “SSX” with a desire to ride sensibly and predictably?

Fortunately, should you be so inclined, you can enjoy most of “SSX’s” highlights without engaging its lowlights.

With respect to its story track, “SSX’s” showcase features are the Explore and Global events, both of which provide non-linear access to every mountain range and let you hop around the globe as you please. The in-game currency and experience points systems, which allow you to upgrade every playable rider and his or her gear, apply across all modes, so you aren’t missing anything (except some annoying cutscenes and chatter) by outright skipping the story.

The Explore and Global events also comprise “SSX’s” clever asynchronous multiplayer, which functions like a social network for “SSX” fans. You can challenge other players’ scores (which appear persistently in the menus or in ghost form), create Global Events that thousands of players can enter, form and track rivalries, and even drop geotags on a course and challenge other players to find a way to reach the spot where you left it. The longer it stays untouched, the bigger the payout.

The downside of asynchronous multiplayer? It comes at the expense of the traditional stuff. You might spot friends on the slopes if you’re playing the same Global Event at the same time, but if you’re hoping to race friends directly online — or even offline via splitscreen, as was an “SSX” staple once upon a time — you’re out of luck.


Jak and Daxter Collection
For: Playstation 3
From: Naughty Dog/Mass Media Inc./Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone/Teen (comic mischief, language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40 (games also available separately for $15 each via Playstation Network)

The advent of a “Jak and Daxter” HD collection was patently inevitable as soon as Sony began unleashing these terrific (and terrifically-priced) two- and three-packs of remastered Playstation 2 classics.

Here’s another shocker: “Jak and Daxter Collection” does excellent justice to the three games — originally released between 2001 and 2004 — that comprise it. The remastered games play perfectly, and though the original games’ colorful, Pixar-esque graphics have aged better than those of most PS2 titles, the benefits of a high-definition upgrade are obvious and considerable. The addition of stereoscopic 3D is sufficient for those with the technology to support it, and Playstation Network Trophy hunters will delight at the presence of lengthy trophy lists (each topped with a Platinum trophy) for each game.

If you lost track of “Jak and Daxter” back in the day, “Collection’s” biggest surprise may be just how much variety lies within — and not simply because Naughty Dog (best known today as the developer responsible for the “Uncharted” PS3 games) knew how to stuff a whole lot of creative level designs and ideas into these games. Though the level of variety certainly is copious, it’s the series’ gradual shift in tone and even genre that’s most striking.

The series’ debut, “Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy,” was a 3D platformer from the “Super Mario 64” school of colorful characters, collectables and levels that were open to discovery but still pretty self-contained. A voice cast and slight taste for vehicles set it somewhat apart, but it certainly felt right at home in its chosen genre.

“Jak II,” on the other hand, played as much like “Grand Theft Auto” as it did the original “Jak and Daxter.” Though not gratingly or humorlessly so, the tone was measurably darker, and the difficulty spiked accordingly. The open-world Haven City served as a massive hub at the heart of the game, and guns and vehicles (which, yes, you could hijack) played a major role. The addition of hoverboards even brought with it a “Tony Hawk”-style minigame. “Jak II” never outright abandoned the ingredients that comprised the first game, but platforming definitely takes a reduced role.

“Jak 3,” appropriately, feels like a culmination of all that preceded it. It somewhat jettisons the bustling city design in favor of something more wide-open, and its gameplay accommodates the shift with an epic adventure flavor that very capably makes room for nearly every gameplay element that found its way into the first two games.

Remarkably, the series never really loses its way during the course of this evolution. For all the different ideas each edition throws at the wall, the franchise as a whole is a model of consistency when quality is the sole metric. It’s also aged extremely well, especially with a new coat of graphical paint applied. These games were easy to recommend back when they cost $50 each, and at $40 for all three, it’s one of the better gaming values of 2012 thus far.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: thatgamecompany/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $15

If your jaw isn’t on the floor following a trip through “Journey,” call your doctor, because you probably don’t have a jaw. As best a video game can be expected to do, “Journey” replicates the sensation of being lost and alone in a wholly unknown land. It drops you in a vacant desert, offers a couple prompts to show you which buttons on your controller are in play, and that’s it. The rest of the way, you’re left to your own devices, free to venture through the desert, under the sea, and up a snowy mountain toward an oasis that waits faintly in the distance. “Journey” offers traditional resistance by way of riddles to solve and secrets to find along the way, but there’s no health bar or even enemies in the traditional sense. More than a game to beat, it’s a literal journey that wants you simply to explore its staggeringly pretty scenery rather than survive it. (Outside of the real thing, these might be the most stunning sand and snow physics you’ve ever seen.) Alone and in though, the trip is a treat without equal. But “Journey” truly sparkles when you come upon other players making their own pilgrimages in the same world. You won’t know who they are — “Journey” doesn’t reveal their PSN usernames until past the closing credits — and your only means of communication is a single button that emits a musical tone of variable length. With that, you’re free to blissfully ignore each other or find a way, like two birds chirping at each other, to share the road and complete the journey together. If you elect to try the latter option, prepare for an organic co-op gaming experience that’s wholly unlike any you’ve experienced before.

Games 2/21/11 (Part Two): Playstation Vita + Launch Game Roundup

Playstation Vita
From: Sony
Price: $250 (Wi-Fi only version) or $300 (Wi-Fi/3G version)

Even when it was brand-new, Sony’s Playstation Portable left something to be desired. With the Nintendo DS finally coming into its own, the merits of having a touchscreen were plain to see. And for a system attempting to distill the console experience onto a handheld with nothing lost, the lack of a second analog stick crippled the PSP from day one.

Until technology comes along that allows us to control games with our minds, the Playstation Vita has no such problem. It supports the tried and true, with a full complement of buttons and two analog sticks. It has a capactive, multitouch-capable touchscreen that vastly outclasses Nintendo’s resistive screen. It has an accelerometer for tilt control, a microphone for voice control and front and rear cameras for augmented reality. There’s Internet via Wi-Fi and, optionally, 3G. With a capactive touch panel adorning the back of the device, there’s even something brand new.

As pieces of hardware go, the Vita impresses in almost every major respect. Though a little larger than the PSP, it’s surprisingly light and comfortable to hold. The sticks and buttons look alarmingly small at first glance but prove comfortable and capable in the heat of gameplay, and the touchscreen and touch panel are pleasantly responsive (a credit, perhaps, to the snappy system software as well as the hardware). A glowing Playstation button provides easy access to core system functions, even mid-game, and the directional pad is better than the one on the Playstation 3’s controller. Only the Start button, on system’s far bottom right, feels awkwardly positioned. But it had to go somewhere, and like anything else, accessing it becomes second nature with practice.

On top of responding quickly and precisely to the touch, the 5-inch OLED touchscreen is roomy, bright and stunningly crisp. As the system’s launch lineup demonstrates multiple times, there is no barrier whatsoever to replicating a high-definition console experience on this screen.

The only potential dud on the hardware side are the cameras. They’ll more than suffice for augmented reality gaming purposes (a set of AR cards comes bundled with the system, though AR games weren’t available on the Playstation Store as of this writing), and if Sony introduces a video chat app, it should work for that as well. But if you have a smartphone made after 2008, you almost certainly have a better camera for picture-taking purposes than the ones packed in here.

Though responsive, unique and almost certain to improve through future firmware updates, the Vita’s system software isn’t quite as sparkling as the hardware housing it. Instead of the XMB that made the PSP and PS3 so easy to navigate, the Vita’s main screen arranges games and applications on the home screen as a series of orb-shaped icons, with no way to group them into folders or hide the built-in apps you don’t plan to use. Arranging the icons is tedious — in no small part because the home screen allows touch control only for some reason — and as you play more games and add more icons to the screen, things can get unwieldy in a hurry.

With that said, there’s an excellent reason icons for games you play stay on the home screen even when you eject the game from the system. In addition to save data, each game’s icon contains a Live Area — a screen where you can launch/resume the game, view your play/trophy history, check for updates, view the digital instruction manual, and access website links, bonus features or whatever else a game’s developer decides to put there.

For all the system software presently does awkwardly, the Live Area is brilliant. It’s unintrusive — your game state immediately freezes if you pop out to the Live Area and it resumes just as instantly when you jump back in — and always having the manual a tap away is the best answer yet to the decline of paper manuals. (Sure enough, Vita games are a dead tree-free zone.) Even downloading game updates no longer disrupts your game: Just initiate the download, jump back into your in-progress game, and apply the update at your leisure later on. How’s that for a night-and-day improvement over the PS3’s Byzantine update process?

As evidenced by the existence of a 3G version, Sony would like you to use your Vita for more than just games, and while most of the non-gaming apps have not appeared in the Playstation store as of this writing, the usual suspects — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr — are en route. For its part, Sony packs in a web browser that’s decent in a pinch but feature-deficient, and its Group Messaging, Party, Trophies and Friends apps are good for managing and enhancing your Playstation Network lifestyle. (All but the browser can be accessed without losing your place in a game, too) Music and video players do exactly what you expect them to do, and the Content Management app provides a reasonably painless way to transfer music, video and games from a PS3, Mac or PC.

(A few notes about the 3G version: A 3G plan — via AT&T — costs $15 a month but comes with no contract and can be activated and canceled at will. If your only aim is to play games, though, you probably should opt for the Wi-Fi version: Gameplay over 3G is untenable if it’s even supported, and the 20 MB download limit means you can’t even download most games unless you’re on a Wi-Fi connection.)

The oddest oddball in Sony’s initial app offerings is, by far, the Near app, a location-based program that aims to connect players who are nearby and reward them with discoverable bonuses for games that integrate its features. In its current state, Near is considerably promising but also considerably confusing — jumbled with enough vague icons and self-contained jargon to make it seemingly impossible to understand, but fun enough to try and figure out anyway. An expanded help section would go a long way in a future update, but for now, there’s fun to be had in figuring this virtual wilderness out.

Overall, the Vita’s upside far outweighs its downside, and the initial launch library is one of the best ever assembled for any system.

But there’s always a caveat, and in this case, it relates to storage.

Specifically, the Vita has no internal storage. To download, update and even save progress in your games, you’ll need a proprietary memory card. Many launch-day bundles ship with one, but it isn’t necessarily a given, and the prices for the cards (ranging from $20 for 4 GB to $100 for 32 GB) mean it isn’t a trivial expense. If you’re budgeting for a system, factor that in now so you don’t feel sticker shock later.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss
From: SCE Bend Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, drug reference, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $50

The Vita’s most prominent launch game likely will also be its most polarizing. For the most part, “Uncharted: Golden Abyss” plays like an “Uncharted” game, mixing lots of climbing and platforming with third-person, cover-based shootouts against legions of enemies armed to the teeth. In between, though, “Abyss” eschews the blockbuster set pieces of recent “Uncharted” games in favor of intelligence gathering — treasure hunts, charcoal rubbings, photography, examining and cleaning artifacts, a puzzle here and there — that utilizes the Vita’s other control inputs. On one hand, it feels like a textbook case of a big-ticket launch game using every piece of a new system by any means necessary. But “Abyss” doesn’t cram the stuff down players’ throats. A few of these instances lie on the storyline’s main road, but most are optional endeavors for those who enjoy the leisurely challenge of finding obscure pathways and gathering all the back story clues. “Abyss” makes it fun rather than a mindless chore to do so, so the gimmickry is forgivable. The core gameplay, by contrast, gets a best-of-both-worlds treatment: Traditional button-and-stick controls apply, but everything has a complementary touch or tilt method as well, and some of them prove surprisingly handy. You need not choose one or the other, either: Both schemes are simultaneously in play, and you can utilize and ignore methods in whatever fashion suits you best. Presentationally, “Abyss” upholds the series’ high values with an engaging story, a great cast of characters and some of the best voice acting in the business bringing it all to life. Not surprisingly, and much like its bigger console brothers, it’s one of the prettier games in the library thus far.

Lumines: Electronic Symphony
From: Q Entertainment/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $40

If you ever had a PSP, you’re likely familiar with “Lumines,” which merged a falling-block puzzle game with a rhythmic music game to create an engrossing experience that stole the show during the PSP’s launch. Seven years, a few sequels and a new portable Playstation later, little has changed. In terms of features, “Lumines: Electronic Symphony” is a bit more substantial, thanks largely to a persistent experience points system that rewards continued play with new unlockable special abilities and levels (each accompanied by a completely distinctive visual aesthetic and song selection). Online leaderboards are ingrained into the interface, as is an amusing community feature where Vita players worldwide band together to clear millions of blocks in a 24-hour span. (What happens if they succeed is, thus far, a mystery.) Master and time trial challenges cater to advanced players who like clearing blocks under heavy pressure, while two-player local multiplayer (no online, unfortunately) follows multiplayer puzzle game conventions pretty faithfully. Ultimately, though, “Symphony’s” centerpiece remains its marathon mode, where players keep the playing field clear while the game cycles through levels whose audiovisual exteriors dictate the tempo of the action. (In turn, your actions in the game influence portions of that soundtrack’s construction. Hard to explain on paper, but you’ll understand once you catch onto it.) Much as “Lumines” was an audiovisual showpiece for the PSP, so too is “Symphony” for the Vita, and the game at the center of it all hasn’t lost a step. A means for playing using only the touchscreen is available if you need change for changes’ sake, but the classic tandem of D-pad and face buttons remains the superior choice.

Escape Plan
From: Fun Bits Interactive/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (suggestive themes, violence, blood)
Price: $15

The arguable oddball (in a good way) of the Vita launch? It has to be “Escape Plan,” which takes a simple premise — help best buds Lil and Laarg escape from a bizarre, factory-like prison laden with danger — and packages it in a wrapper that’s pretty, charming, twisted and the most clever introduction there is to the Vita’s touch (and to a lesser extent, tilt) control capabilities. You control neither Lil nor Laarg directly: Rather, using the touchscreen and touch panel, you swipe and poke at them to guide their movement and interact similarly with the surrounding environment to keep them from strolling into peril. Past the opening levels, “Plan” doesn’t tell you what to do: It’s up to you to look around the level and figure out what can be done — perhaps tapping a mattress from behind to push it over for a safe landing, perhaps holding a finger over a damaged pipe to block a gas leak while using another finger to guide the friends across — to escort them safely. As usual, easy early levels eventually give way to genuine brainteasers, and while you can cheat “Plan’s” three-star grading system by replaying levels once you figure them out, the real sport comes from keeping Lil’s and Laarg’s death count to a minimum. The number of times each character perishes is displayed prominently and humorously on their body, which is but one of the many darkly funny touches — Tim Burton-esque character design, a monochrome presentation that looks like a cross between 3D and charcoal art come expressively alive, a delightful appetite for slapstick, a classical music soundtrack that jubilantly belies the otherwise dark tone — that make “Plan” a beast of its own creation.

Wipeout 2048
From: Studio Liverpool/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $40

If you don’t follow the “Wipeout” timeline, you may not realize “Wipeout 2048” actually predates the original Playstation “Wipeout” game by a few years. What this means — in addition to a really impressive opening video that beautifully animates the evolution of the automobile into the hovering ship for which the series is known — is that “2048’s” tracks are a cool hybrid of regular concrete roads and the futuristic tracks that populate the other “Wipeout” games. Beyond that visual twist, though, this is as “Wipeout” as “Wipeout” gets — a very fast, very pretty and eventually very challenging futuristic racing game that will absolutely punish you if you don’t learn to use your ship’s air brake. Long load times between races — in the 30 to 40 second range — make “2048” the slowest Vita game as well as the fastest one, but if you can ride out the wait, the spotless on-track action is worth it. (Just be sure to stick with the tried and true: A tilt-and-touch control scheme is available as an option, but it holds no candle to the sticks and buttons.) “2048’s” customary career mode mixes races, time trials and kart racer-style combat events, all of which carry over to local and online play (eight players each). As a first taste of Sony’s plans to cross-pollinate the Vita and PS3, those who own “2048” also can race against those who own “Wipeout HD” on the PS3. If you own both versions, the two forthcoming downloadable packs of “HD” tracks are yours to download for free when they release for “2048” this spring.

Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational
From: Clap Hanz/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes)
Price: $40

Another Sony system means another place to drop a “Hot Shots Golf” game, and if you’re surprised at how safely “Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational” mostly plays its hand, you must not be very familiar with this series. But why fix what isn’t broken? Familiar though a lot of it may look, there’s a healthy amount of courses to play through, characters to unlock and tournaments to win in “Invitational.” “Hot Shots” perfected the recipe for accessible video game golf years ago, and that system — anchored by a default swing mechanic anyone can understand and complemented by additional and alternative methods of control for those who want them — shows no age here. “Invitational” iterates similarly, adding a new touchscreen swing option and letting players use the tilt and touchscreen to pan the course and plot a path to the tee, respectively. As always, if you play alone, there’s plenty to do in the career mode, but “Invitation’s” best features lie on the multiplayer side. Along with eight-player local multiplayer and 30-player online tournament support, players can enter a daily worldwide tournament. You play one round and get one chance per day to post a score to a global leaderboard. The top score gets fame and glory, while everyone else has to wait until tomorrow for another chance. No pressure.

Little Deviants
From: Bigbig Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, cartoon violence, comic mischief)
Price: $30

With every new system, there must be a minigame collection that doubles as a coming-out party for all the new features. The Vita bakes one into the system in the form of “Welcome Park,” but if you want something meatier, “Little Deviants” — a minigame collection that puts the touchscreen, accelerometer and camera through numerous paces — is it. Some of the games — including the showpiece game, which has you guiding a Deviant around an area by touching the back panel to “push” the land up and roll him along — are clever. Most — using augmented reality to blast robots flying around your own home, tilting the Vita to roll a Deviant around a maze or steer him through an obstacle course — are not. Almost all reside on the shallow side, as minigames tend to do. But if “Deviants” is more a statement about the Vita’s quality than a game you’ll still be playing months from now, it’s a pretty convincing one. Achieving medal-worthy scores in these games requires some pretty nimble Deviant guidance, and the precision and speed with which the system responds to touch and tilt may surprise even those with high expectations. The polished control makes “Deviants” fun in spite of how shallow most of the games are, and if you like a challenge, chasing the games’ gold medal score requirements most certainly is one. “Deviants” also does a nice job of integrating your friends list and Sony’s Near software: If you have friends or neighbors playing the game, you’ll be able to chase their scores and send them challenges to return the favor when you pass them.

Super Stardust Delta
From: Housemarque/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10 (free with activation of a 3G data plan)

One of the PS3’s original standout downloadable games is now pulling similar duty on the Vita, which has the dual sticks to do it justice. In the vein of “Geometry Wars” and “Robotron,” “Super Stardust Delta” is a pure dual-stick shooter (left stick to fly the ship, right stick to aim and fire). Its primary gimmick — that the levels are spherical planets rather than flat arenas — gets put to better effect here than on the PS3, thanks to an ability to tilt the Vita to change the perspective from which you view the planet. Five offshoot modes take advantage of the touch and tilt controls, including a tilt-based game in which you control a rolling asteroid, a touch-and-drag game where you keep a blue disc out of harm’s way, and an amusing game where you pinch the touchscreen and rear touch panel together to “squish” asteroids like a god. But “Delta’s” main modes — a planet-by-planet campaign or an arcade-style marathon mode — are as pure in spirit as their PS3 counterparts. The Vita’s sticks are up to the task, the game is as polished and responsive here as it’s ever been, and the confluence of challenge, activity and special effects makes for an exciting and very pretty way to put $10 to very good use.

Army Corps of Hell
From: Entersphere/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $40

The wait for Nintendo’s third “Pikmin” game has entered its eighth year, and if you’re inpatient enough to play the best “Pikmin” game Nintendo wouldn’t dare make, this one has your name written all over it. “Army Corps of Hell” puts you in control of the literal King of Hell, but the real action comes from commanding a massive army of minions to do your bidding. The fundamental similarities to “Pikmin” are undeniable: You “command” minions by chucking them two or more at a time at enemies and other points of interest, and your duties as king revolve around keeping minions alive and managing different formations of sword-, spear- and spell-wielding minions. The primary difference with “Hell” is, of course, the theme: In place of “Pikmin’s” cute creatures and lush landscapes, “Hell” sets shop in a scorched underworld, populates it with hideous allies and enemies alike, drenches everything in blood, and wraps it inside a heavy metal soundtrack that’s so deliriously overt as to be amusing. Elsewhere, “Hell” is alternately a deeper and shallower game. Though level arrangements change and boss fights force you to consider new attack formations, there’s still little objective beyond killing enemies. On the other hand, you can level up your minions and outfit them with new weapons and armor. If you’re up to the challenge, there’s fun to be had in finding the perfect formation and putting it into play to finish a level quickly, forcefully and stylishly enough to get the highest grades. Should you wish to apply that knowledge toward destroying your friends as well, a local multiplayer option (four players) is on hand to let you do just that.

Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen
From: Acquire/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Price: $40

One look at the graphics is all it takes to wonder if “Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen” began life as a PSP game before rebuilding the deck and jumping aboard the Vita launch. Unflattering visual presentation aside, though, the move was for the best. The Vita’s dual joysticks prove to be a considerable asset in a game where you’re trying to maintain stealthy awareness in levels with multiple open ends. Similarly, while the touchscreen gets put to limited use and nearly every function has a button equivalent, they’re useful functions (calling up a map, honing in on a target’s general location when the game alerts you to his presence) that are easier to access this way than via buttons. “Zen” has some wobbly control working against it: Zen (that’s you) is a bit clumsy when climbing ledges and peeking around corners, and he’s downright messy when fighting an enemy who has spotted you and is fighting back. (Theres a reason your specialty is stealth, so just flee and try to surprise your enemies again. “Zen” and Zen, to their equal credit, are flexible enough that getting spotted isn’t a deal-breaker if you aren’t stubborn enough to admit your mistake and bolt for the shadows.) “Zen’s” action is fast, limber and engrossing enough to make even its control shortcomings pretty forgivable, and the story brings with it lots of control over upgrades, special moves and allegiances with different factions. It won’t make your newfangled handheld feel very new, but as stealth action games go, it offers a lot to like.

ModNation Racers: Road Trip
From: SCE San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $30

The endlessly customizable kart racer makes a Vita debut that’s at once impressive, imperfect and incomplete. Outside of some occasional framerate stutters, “ModNation Racers: Road Trip’s” on-track action looks and feels as good as the original “ModNation Racers” did on the PS3. Better still, because both games feed into the same ecosystem, every one of the hundreds of thousands of karts, racers and tracks players created in the PS3 edition is immediately available to download for free in this version. The customization options remain enormous, and the track builder benefits from the optional touchscreen sculpting tools (though the traditional interface remains available as well for those who prefer it). On the other side of the coin, “Trip” sports some lengthy load times that lend an air of unresponsiveness to the touchscreen-only menu interface. And while “Trip” supports local multiplayer (four players) and mobile-friendly asynchronous online play via time trial challenges, the lack of head-to-head online racing is baffling considering the 2010 PSP version had it. There’s an obscene amount of content here for single and local multiplayer purposes, but if your primary goal is to compete online, another racer will have to suffice.

Touch My Katamari
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $30

“Katamari Damacy” — that bizarre game where you roll a ball-shaped katamari around and… forget it, just watch a video to understand it — was such a weirdly original stroke of genius that it remains beloved in spite of Namco’s inability to meaningfully improve it over the course of numerous sequels. “Touch My Katamari” is no different, and its self-aware storyline — in which the King of all Cosmos mounts a furious return to form after his once-loyal subjects declare him stale and washed up — might have been insulting if it wasn’t so sharply, hilariously on point. Like its predecessors, “TMK” resides at the three-way intersection between weird, genuinely funny and easy to play/hard to master, and there remains something compelling about rolling around a ball smaller than a bottle cap that gradually grows large enough to absorb cows, trains and entire buildings. The level count is low — only 12 environments — if all you plan to do is blaze through the story. But each level offers two additional variants upon completing it the first time, and beyond the pursuit of top grades and high scores, there’s a ton of hidden and unlockable content for completists to discover by replaying levels. As the name implies, an optional touch interface accompanies the traditional dual-stick controls, and you can switch freely between both. In a minor twist that’s useful and amusing all at once, you also can use multitouch to pinch or stretch the katamari to squeeze between tight spaces and/or sweep a wide area that would require two or three passes in standard ball form.

Asphalt: Injection
From: Gameloft/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence, tobacco reference)
Price: $30

How much are buttons and sticks worth to you? In the Vita launch, no game contextualizes the 99 cent-versus-$30 price debate as pointedly as “Asphalt: Injection.” On its own merits, “Injection” is a well-made and well-rounded racing game, with 45 licensed vehicles, 15 cities’ worth of tracks, a comprehensive career mode with numerous event types and local/online multiplayer (eight players each). But “Asphalt 6,” available for a buck on iOS, offers most of these features as well. Support for Playstation Network features (friends, trophies, Near) aside, the primary difference is the ability to drive with the sticks and shoulder buttons instead of tilt and virtual touchscreen buttons. For many, that’s enough. “Injection” controls respectably with its optional tilt and touch control scheme, but it’s a superior experience with traditional controls, which are just plain better at handling a racing game that threads the needle between fast arcade action and consideration for vehicle weight and other simulation-like features. For those less concerned about acing “Injection’s” career and online arena, control precision may not be worth the 2,900 percent markup. And if that’s the case more than it isn’t, developers in Gameloft’s position have some stuff to ponder with regard to how they price their games.

Rayman Origins
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, suggestive themes)
Price: $40

Pound for pound, “Rayman Origins” — the magnificently pretty 2D platformer that ranked among 2011’s best games — is as good as any game on this list. If you haven’t played it on a console yet, this port may also be the version to get. Though a lengthy game that easily commands its price, “Origins” also breaks into stages that are very portable-friendly. The 2D graphics look stellar on the Vita’s screen, and a new layer of touch controls enhance the experience without changing anything about the core gameplay. The only downside: This version doesn’t have the console versions’ two-player co-op support.

Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild language, partial nudity, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40

Like “Rayman Origins,” “Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3” is powered by a hand-drawn graphical presentation that just looks awesome on this screen. Every feature from the console versions — 50-plus characters, eight-player online play, the Heroes and Heralds mode — makes it into this edition, and an accessible and flexible touch control scheme is available for casual players who want to pull off the prettier moves without putting in the effort to master them. (Competitive players, worry not: You can avoid these players online if you please.) Capcom has jumped on the cross-compatibility train as well: If you own the PS3 version of “UMvC3” and have purchased any downloadable content for it, that DLC is yours for free in this version (and vice versa).

Plants vs. Zombies
From: Popcap/Sony Online Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, cartoon violence)
Price: $15

Because you can’t have a system these days without a version of “Plants vs. Zombies” on it, kudos to Sony Online Entertainment for having one ready to go right at launch. The Vita also benefits from all that prior porting: It has the console version’s controller controls, the mobile versions’ touch controls, and pretty much every important feature Popcap has built into the game since it first appeared. If you somehow haven’t played it yet, this may be the definitive version until a sequel comes along