Games 5/1/12: Botanicula, The Walking Dead: Episode 1: A New Day

For: PC/Mac
From: Amanita Design
ESRB Rating: Not Rated
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild horror/fear themes, infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $10

Every sight, song and expressive peep is a treat to see, hear, witness and bring to life in “Botanicula,” and for a game that caters to curiosity fulfillment above all else, there’s no higher praise.

Skeletally, “Botanicula” is a point-and-click adventure like any other. Completing each of the six chapters entails a sequence of cause-and-effect puzzle-solving where solving smaller riddles rewards you with the means and access needed to solve the larger surrounding puzzle.

But where most adventure games rely heavily on dialogue, “Botanicula’s” story — in which five tree creature friends venture to save a living seed from their home tree after parasites descend on it — has exactly none. Our band of heroes communicates solely though squeals of delight and yelps of despair, and whenever other characters or the game itself want to illustrate a point, they literally do so with illustrations and symbols.

The spartan (and adorable) method of communication works perfectly in concert with “Botanicula’s” ambient soundtrack and visual design, in which handmade cutout pieces cheerfully animate to life in front of comparably handcrafted backdrops. And when all those elements come together, the world they create is, logically as well as aesthetically, one of a kind.

Though its riddles can be tricky, particularly within the back half’s more elaborate levels, “Botanicula” is designed in such a way that a natural curiosity proves as handy as any strain of problem-solving prowess you might have. Nothing in your life likely has prepared you to beat a smug peanut at a beatle race in order to trick him into giving up his bicycle helmet so you can give it to another creature before launching that creature out of a circus cannon. But if you’re curious enough to explore everything that looks like it might be anything, “Botanicula” eventually reveals the odd but oddly sensible logic needed to get from one side of that problem to the other. The puzzles are bizarre in exactly the right way — strange enough to make you wonder what weird surprise lurks next, abstract enough not to hold your hand through the discovery process, but never nearly so opaque as to frustrate or grind that discovery process to a halt.

And what a process that becomes. Fun though unraveling “Botanicula’s” mysterious logic most definitely is, it’s the moments where one stops, looks and listens that almost certainly will endure. “Botanicula” offers a mostly optional secondary challenge in the form of collectible creature cards, giving players a new card every time they fully explore the ways and means of a creature in the game’s wonderfully imaginative ecosystem. The cards themselves aren’t worth anything unless you’re a completionist and achievement junkie. But the things you’ll see and hear en route to receiving them are every bit as smile-inducing as the surprises you’ll uncover along “Botanicula’s” main road.


The Walking Dead: Episode 1: A New Day
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network), Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade), PC/Mac
From: Telltale Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (strong language, blood and gore, intense violence)
Price: $5 for the first episode, $20-25 for a five-episode season pass (PS3/PC/Mac)

Telltale Games coasted into a rut with “Back to the Future,” and its stab at something different with “Jurassic Park” was the kind of disaster that shakes your faith in a studio. So the arrival of “The Walking Dead’s” first episode — which finds Telltale again breaking away from formula but subsequently breaking ground instead of confidence — couldn’t be timelier. Set concurrently with the events of the “TWD” television show, “A New Day” tells the story of brand-new character Lee Everett, who has a troubling secret to keep as well as a child to protect from the zombie horde. Safeguarding the latter (and yourself) means engaging in brief but tense action sequences where quick reflexes and the ability to make tough decisions quickly will serve you well. But it’s the guarding of that secret that really brings Lee’s story alive. The meat of “Day’s” gameplay consists of dialogue with other survivors, but instead of asking questions and gathering information, you’re holding answers, playing mental chess and deciding — quickly and without do-overs — whom to trust whom to deceive. Your choices in conversation, along with some other decisions you must make with similar haste and confidence, play heavily into how “Day” concludes, and if the teases for the second episode are any indication, the ramifications of this episode will only intensify as the five-episode series marches ahead.

Games 3/30/10: WarioWare D.I.Y., Just Cause 2, Game Room

WarioWare D.I.Y.
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

An important warning for those who like “WarioWare” games but despise the idea of creating their own fun: This one may not be for you — at least, not yet.

Also, a word of warning for anyone who enjoys a creative challenge or has aspirations to enter the world of animation, character and/or game design: If you don’t at least check this out, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Like every “WarioWare” game before it, “WarioWare D.I.Y.” sports a collection of microgames, which are like minigames but generally toss out one vaguely-worded objective, allow five seconds or fewer for players to figure out and complete the challenge, and then whisk away before another microgame pops up and repeats the cycle until players simply cannot keep up.

But the “D.I.Y.” in the title isn’t kidding. Where previous games came bundled with more than 200 microgames each, “D.I.Y.” has a few north of 90, and not all of them are even new. If you want more than that, guess what? Make them yourself.

Fortunately, that’s not a concession of laziness on Nintendo’s behalf, but instead the real reason “D.I.Y.” even exists at all. And in spite of the obvious limitations on hand with regard to the hardware and the microgame format, Nintendo has put together a game design tool that’s shockingly robust.

The full might of the tool isn’t apparent at first glance, when “D.I.Y.” asks players simply to draw a character that the game inserts into a pre-scripted microgame. Initially, this appears to be all “D.I.Y.” is — players performing fill-in duty while the game does all the creative, complicated stuff.

But a trip through the 65-page manual and absolutely staggering collection of thoroughly thorough in-game tutorials changes the picture completely. “D.I.Y.” obviously doesn’t allow for the creation of the next “Legend of Zelda” game, and the limitations of the microgame format are in place, but the tools do not skimp on control. Players can create objects separately using a pretty capable paint editor and, in similar fashion to basic Adobe Flash design, can script those objects to move and react according to input triggers and other conditions. Ambitious creators can stack win conditions for extra challenge, and there’s even a little music composition tool for soundtrack creation purposes.

Nintendo goes a little crazy with the tutorials — Photoshop pros who don’t need basic paint program instruction will be dismayed to discover they can’t just skip ahead — but the lessons are brisk, effective and, with Wario’s help, pretty funny. The tools’ respective interfaces benefit from similar attention to detail, and “D.I.Y.” toes the line between whimsy and efficiency to resonate equally with designers-to-be and Nintendo fans.

Happily, all your hard work need not be for your eyes only. “D.I.Y.’s” content sharing suite allows players to share microgames with friends (locally or online), including anyone who downloads the $8 microgame player for the Wii. But the centerpiece of the suite is the Design Challenge, which offers up themed contests for anyone to enter and will feature the winners in the in-game Nintendo channel, which also will house a stream of new downloadable games from Nintendo and other well-known game designers.


Just Cause 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Avalanche Studios/Eidos/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, language, sexual themes, violence)

The original “Just Cause” was sensationally fun despite having more issues than a panophobia convention, so how much better is “Just Cause 2” by touching the same fun-at-all-costs nerve and doing it without all those aforementioned issues?

No one really knows, because “JC2” brings back several of those issues en route to a sloppy opening hour that, thankfully, isn’t a complete indication of things to come.

Most glaringly, “JC2” shoots like a third-person shooter from 2003. Auto-aim runs rampant, manual targeting is unwieldy, and players looking for a way to seek cover will be dismayed to discover even the basic crouch mechanic is completely useless.

The old shooting controls work in tandem with a scripted opening suite of missions that mostly penalizes players for using the barrelful of cool action-movie stunts — jumping between vehicle rooftops, shooting while hanging from a bumper, zip-lining between any two objects bolted to the ground — it taught them only moments earlier. “JC2” embraces playground physics and open-world cause-and-effect like no game before it, but that embrace backfires until players are past the toe-dipping stage and left to their own devices.

The good news is that once that happens, “JC2” does things its predecessor couldn’t even fathom doing four years ago.

Rico’s semi-magical grappling hook returns, but as alluded to earlier, it’s significantly more versatile this time, and that alone is a game-changer. Anything bolted down and within range can be zipped to instantly, and anything (or anyone) not bolted down can be launched into the air, fished out of the air or tethered to anything else using the absurd but wonderful dual-hook capability. The exaggerated physics that initially betray players become their best friend when it becomes clear how much havoc one can cause using just the hook.

There’s no shortage of mischief-making opportunities, either. “JC2’s” controls may be from another era, but the game’s scope is from another galaxy: The fictional Panau Island encompasses some 400 sq. miles, and it’s wide open for perusal once those opening missions conclude. Rico can scale enormous mountains using the hook, and per genre custom, all vehicles are operable.

But “JC2” truly amazes when viewed from an airplane or helicopter. Panau’s scope is as vertical as it is horizontal, and watching the island’s scale change while ascending and descending is a magnificent sight. That it happens almost completely free of load times is a feat of programming.

“JC2’s” story isn’t quite as ambitious, though the voice cast’s use of deliriously bad accents at least makes it fun to experience.

Regardless, it provides occasion for Rico to unleash untold dollars’ worth of damage over anywhere from 20 to 80 hours’ worth of mainline and optional missions. Some missions are more fun than others, some have the capability to aggravate the same way those early missions do, and it’s a bummer there’s no way to share the fun via co-op play. But when it becomes clear just how big “JC2” is and how well it understands the value of creative, explosive, dumb fun, those dud missions and other deficiencies become surprisingly easy to accept.


Game Room
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade and Windows PC via Games for Windows Live
From: Microsoft/various publishers
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)
Price: Free for client, $3 per game (360 or PC only), $5 per game (both platforms)

Superficially, “Game Room” is enticing. Eventually, it could be pretty special. Out of the gate, though, Microsoft’s new retro games client, —which refashions a menu of downloadable arcade classics as a virtual arcade for players’ Xbox and/or Windows Live avatars — is too compromised to be either. For starters, the virtual arcade is little more than an additional menu laye
r: Players can decorate their arcades and customize the arrangement of purchased virtual cabinets, but because there’s no way to roam the arcade in avatar form and interact with friends controlling their avatars, the interface is little more than busywork with limited novelty. More problematic is the excessive pricing for a selection of games that, so far, aren’t very good. “Room’s” initial library of 30 games hails from the Intellivison and early Atari era, and while the addition of client-wide achievements and online leaderboards is excellent, the $3-$5 price to own each game (and 50 cents to demo a game beyond the single free demo play) is too high when newer, better games are available everywhere for similar prices. Should “Room’s” selection exponentially improve, and should Microsoft introduce a sensible subscription pricing model that affords players access to the whole library, “Room” could be pretty awesome. Right now, though, it’s just a prettied-up menu of downloadable games that aren’t nearly worth what they cost.

Games 7/7/09: Red Faction: Guerrilla, The Bigs 2, Battlefield Heroes

Red Faction: Guerrilla
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Volition, Inc./THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)

Volition’s past work on the “Saints Row” and “Red Faction” have joined forces for one extraordinary lovechild in “Red Faction: Guerrilla,” which ditches the franchise’s claustrophobic first-person shooter roots in favor of a full-scale, third-person liberation of open-world Mars.

“Faction” originally established itself by allowing players to destroy environments before destructible environments became remotely commonplace, and “Guerrilla” makes its name not only by applying that principle to a persistent, open-ended landscape, but by once again doing it better than anyone ever has. Advancement through the game opens the door to all manner of explosive technology (rockets, atomic rifles, armored vehicles and mechs), but it’s just as fun to leisurely decimate a fortress with nothing more than your absurdly powerful sledgehammer. The ensuing mayhem feels astonishingly authentic: Buildings come apart and topple realistically rather than in a manner that feels anywhere near scripted.

Getting this right makes “Guerrilla” a game worth playing, and Volition’s all-points grasp of shooting, driving and on-foot controls pushes the experience beyond simple novelty.

But the game’s best quality, as seen previously in “Saints Row,” is the sheer amount of objectives it gives you to accomplish with these cool toys.

“Guerrilla’s” main storyline, which finds you rising against the same people you helped empower in the original “Faction,” is pretty smart about diversifying and giving weight to its various missions. But an abundance of fun side missions — raids, destruction puzzles, hostage rescues and more — is ripe for completion at the same time. Your headset also alerts you to optional, in-progress events you can help complete, and traversing the landscape reveals strategic, enemy-controlled structures that you’re free to destroy at your convenience.

Just don’t expect much help when you engage. “Guerrilla’s” lone major misstep is its failure to convey the sense that you’re fighting alongside rebels instead of alone. Comrades do come to your aid, but only in small handfuls that are laughably paltry next to the endlessly large opposition forces. On harder difficulty settings, that imbalance leads to some frustrating and cheap gameplay discrepancies. (For those who want the fun without the headache, the casual difficulty setting tempers the imbalance without dialing down the mayhem.)

All the technology that makes “Guerrilla” good on the single-player side translates over to multiplayer (16 players online or LAN). That, along with the fact that all the weapons and gadgets are immediately available, is all the game needs to stand out in spite of its reliance on the same old modes you can find most anywhere else. More surprising is the game’s local multiplayer component, which allows up to four friends to pass the controller and compete in a series of destruction-themed party games. It’s not terribly deep, but it is terribly fun, and Volition deserves major kudos for providing something for players who like to play in the same room.


The Bigs 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
Other versions available for: PSP, Playstation 2
From: Blue Castle/2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild language, mild violence)

2007’s “The Bigs” was a major surprise, and not just because its first attempt to spell modern-day arcade baseball was so spot on.

Rather, the big shock was how well the game pulled that off while also giving armchair managers everything they need to execute a smart as well as forceful game of baseball. Turbo, accumulated through good pitching or plate discipline and used to temporarily superhumanize players, could be applied to fielding and baserunning as well as pitching and hitting, and allocating it smartly was paramount toward manufacturing and preventing runs. The game’s stellar, arguably revolutionary baserunning controls also made it easy to play all manner of small ball, making a perfectly-executed hit-and-run as exhilarating as the game’s cinematic home runs and diving catches.

Everything that made the first game work is preserved in “The Bigs 2,” which leaves well enough alone and elects instead to make a series of mostly welcome refinements.

Most prominent is the Batter’s Wheelhouse, which provides a visual indication of each hitter’s sweet spot. Attack a hitter’s sweet spot and fool him, and you receive an extra turbo boost and shrink the spot. Attack and serve up a bad pitch, though, and you probably can guess the consequence.

Elsewhere on the field, pickoff attempts now actually might work (or result in an overthrow), while losing a home plate collision or failing to catch a bullet line drive can lead to player injury. (So can beaning a hitter, for you nefarious types.) Turbo plays and stockpiling the offensive cache necessary to execute a no-doubt homer are fundamentally unchanged, but “The Bigs 2” adds a tier of risk/reward to both sides with the opportunity to make legendary catches or shoot for the moon with a supersized grand slam.

Feature-wise, the story is similar. A full season mode is most welcome, and the Be a Legend story mode — which finds you as a former Major League superstar beginning a post-injury comeback in Mexico — is an inspired (and meatier) sequel to the first game’s Rookie Challenge. The skills mini-games place a greater emphasis on multiplayer, as does the awesome Home Run Pinball mode, which now supports simultaneous two-player co-op/competitive multiplayer and lets you use Las Vegas, Shibuya and retro Times Square for home run target practice alongside the first game’s modern-day Times Square.

As far as dressing goes, everything looks better, with crisper player models, sharper lighting and livelier stadiums. Dedicated players can unlock retro uniforms (including those of the Montreal Expos) for each franchise, as well as a handful of classic stadiums and legendary players (no surprise, once you see how reverential the story mode is toward baseball immortality).


Battlefield Heroes
For: Windows PC
ESRB Rating: Teen (tobacco reference, violence)
Price: Free to play

The free-to-play model — a free base game, with peripheral content sold at a premium — has enjoyed modest success in its short existence, but it receives a major credibility boost with the debut of “Battlefield Heroes.” “Heroes” plays like a “Battlefield” game should: You fight as part of one of two armies, and it’s your job — by gun, by knife, by tank or by plane — to control various territories before the enemy does so first. “Heroes” presents the action in the third instead of first person, and the cartoony graphics are a dramatic (and welcome) departure from the series’ traditionally realistic tendencies, but it’s as much a “Battlefield” game as any other game bearing the brand’s name. The difference, of course, is that “Heroes” runs — and runs nicely, thanks to its scalable graphical demands — in a Web browser. Outside of a plugin, the game lives entirely on a server, which allows you to access your custom-designed soldier from any PCs equipped to play the game. “Heroes” is perfectly fun in its free state, but the degree to which you can level up your soldier gives the game surprising legs, and those legs might make investing in some of “Heroes'” premium content (clothes, weapons and some unique perks) worth the expense. In a nice touch, “Heroes” also allows dedicated players to accrue valor points, which work toward the purchase of some store items, simply by playing the game. If you’re savvy enough to keep those points rolling in, “Heroes” may never cost you a dime to play.