For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)
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)
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
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, violence)
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.
For: Playstation Vita (via Playstation Network)
From: Beatshapers/Orb Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
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?