Games 1/24/12: Scarygirl, Amy, Saints Row the Third: GenkiBowl VII

For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: TikGames/Square-Enx
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, use of tobacco)
Price: $15

Don’t let the name fool you: Even though its namesake and star has the arms of an octopus and the face of a skeleton vinyl doll, Scarygirl — and the game bearing her name — is more cute than scary.

In fact, for those attuned to “LittleBigPlanet’s” style, “Scarygirl’s” presentation will be familiarly cute. Like “LBP,” it’s a 2D platformer modeled with 3D graphics that look like a diorama come to life — more papercraft and watercolor than “LBP’s” burlap, cardboard and vinyl, but unmistakably riding the same visual wavelength. Throw in the narrator, who introduces each level as if a page from a slightly twisted bedtime storybook, and it’s very obvious from whence at least some of “Scarygirl’s” stylistic influence came.

With that said, don’t let the kindly exterior fool you either. “Scarygirl” gets off to a pretty gentle start, and the levels that comprise the first two of its seven chapters aren’t terribly imposing if your only goal is to clear them.

But then “Scarygirl” drops you into the Hairclump Spider Cave with the cave’s namesake enemy almost immediately on your tail, and just like that, the kid gloves are off.

In part, the challenge spikes for unintended reasons. Though she’s pretty spry, Scarygirl’s repertoire (running, jumping, gliding, swinging, melee combat, and a limited-use forcefield for blocking and counterattacking) sometimes feels almost too responsive, resulting in a slight jerkiness that makes it easy to slip when combining moves or trying to stick a precise jump.

An overly generous hit detection works against as well as for Scarygirl, and there are occasions where enemies spawn right on top of her and cause damage before you even have a chance to react.

Finally, while “Scarygirl’s” level design is generally pretty great — diverse locations, branching paths, gobs of color and style — it also features occasional instances where a jump of faith feels necessary. Sometimes, a jump that looks doable just isn’t because it’s part of a another path on a different perspective plane. “Scarygirl” rarely depends on trial and error, but the few times it does are pretty unflattering. (Fortunately, checkpoints are frequent enough that they aren’t very aggravating.)

Fortunately, the aforementioned points are exceptions to the rule, and “Scarygirl’s” challenge mostly comes from the right places.

The branching, vertical level designs — set in deserts, mountains, aboard airships, in a nightclub and elsewhere — make excellent use of Scarygirl’s arsenal, particularly if you’re bold enough to pull off the tricky acrobatic maneuvers needed to get a perfect level score (no deaths, all collectibles found). You need not perfect a level to pass it, but “Scarygirl” keeps track and provides an leaderboard to motivate the best of the best.

Similarly, while its combat is simple — strong attack, weak attack, forcefield — “Scarygirl” tests it with enemies (and especially bosses) whose attack patterns make it crucial to balance defense, offense and positioning to manage multiple enemies. At its best and most imposing, it’s a perfect ode to the classic sidescrollers of the NES era — modern in its production values and polish, but timeless in the desire it creates to play, replay and master its levels.

If you aren’t quite that dedicated, “Scarygirl’s” two-player drop-in co-op support will take the edge off a bit. It works as painlessly as one hopes it would, with the lack of online support being the only potential downside.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Vector Cell/Lexis Numerique
ESRB Rating: Mature (use of drugs, blood, intense violence, language)
Price: $10

In the thin strip of land separating challenge and undying aggravation, the checkpoint is king. As it goes, so often goes a game’s fate, especially when it’s a horror game crawling with elements seemingly designed to purposefully work against you.

The Amy in “Amy” is a young girl who, for reasons not really clarified, cannot speak and wants zero to do with a place known casually as The Center. When things go awry, she’s in the care of Lana (that’s you), who shares her sentiments.

The upshot of the not-really-explained story is that “Amy” overwhelmingly is an escort game. You indirectly control Amy by pressing a button to hold her hand and pull her around, but she’s also capable (when the A.I. cooperates) of following, waiting, hiding and accessing places you can’t reach to create access for you.

Arguably, when not wandering into mission-ending peril, Amy gives more than she receives. When nearby, she automatically heals Lana, and over time, she’s able to (clumsily) wield telekinetic powers and create temporary safe zones that distort enemies’ senses. In “Amy’s” best trick, you also can hear (and feel, via the controller’s vibration) her heartbeat when monsters, infected people and other enemies are near. The closer you are to peril, the more forceful it beats.

The tension that heartbeat creates is palpable, because “Amy” subscribes to much — good or bad — of what made horror games so scary during their mid-1990s advent. Lana isn’t as clumsy to control as those early “Resident Evil” game characters, but her awkward turning skills and the controller gymnastics needed to make her break into a sprint (especially when holding Amy’s hand) means she’s working in the same neighborhood.

Sadly, her melee combat acumen fares even worse — a point you’ll suspect in “Amy’s” easy first chapter and confirm when things get exponentially hairier in chapter two. The weapons she uses break way too easily, and her swing wouldn’t pass muster in a slow-pitch softball game. Though “Amy” offers a dodge mechanic and encourages you to use it, its sloppy camera and hit detection almost certainly will betray (and, if one bad break leads to another, kill) you.

This, by the way, is where “Amy” goes from endearingly antiquated to hellaciously frustrating.

There are checkpoints scattered across during “Amy’s” six chapters, but they are cruelly sparse. Once again, you’ll likely realize this in chapter two, where you’ll do some exploring, find some story clues, find Amy (who fled following chapter one’s closing twist), see a cutscene and almost immediately get killed in one whack by the star of that cutscene.

If that happens, you have to repeat all that mundane exploring and hope to device an escape plan so the quick demise doesn’t repeat. But even if you escape, learn about Amy’s special abilities, solve a couple key card puzzles and then die at the hands of another enemy you meet 20 minutes later, you have to start the entire chapter over. Because where most games would have dotted this half-hour stretch with two, maybe three checkpoints, “Amy” offers zero.

What a shame, too, because with even a reasonable checkpoint system, all of “Amy’s” miscues — stiff controls, clumsy combat, A.I. lapses, some elaborately annoying trial-and-error processes, a stealth section that would feel ancient 14 years ago — could be written off as forgivable callbacks to a punishing niche genre that still has its fans. When “Amy” is tense, it is exceptionally so, and a reasonable scattering of checkpoints would have enhanced rather than ruined that. When immersive tension gives way to the dread of having to replay 30 minutes that weren’t necessarily fun the first time around, there’s no reason to keep playing.


Saints Row the Third: GenkiBowl VII
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC (requires Saints Row the Third)
From: Volition/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Price: $7 (also included as part of the $20 season pass)

After the complete spectacle that was “Saints Row the Third’s” main storyline, hopes were high that the first downloadable expansion would go even crazier. On one hand, “GenkiBowl VII” — a series of violently fantastical events emceed by the diabolical game show host/living cartoon character Professor Genki — delivers on that hope. Sexy Kitten Yarngasm, for instance, tasks you with causing as much property destruction as possible with a massive, steerable, shockwave-blasting yarn ball, while Sad Panda Skyblazing combines the timeless sports of free-falling through the air in a panda suit and waging war on people in bunny and hot dog suits. Along with some funny play-by-play, it certainly qualifies as a spectacle. But Yarngasm essentially is a modified version of the main game’s Tank Mayhem missions, and the events where you escort Genki around and venture through a deadly game show-style maze have similar counterparts. Only Skyblazing feels completely new, and with only two missions per event to complete, the entire expansion is over before you know it. You can keep the spoils — the yarn ball, Genki’s car, some characters and outfits — and use them throughout the rest of the game, and the fun of wreaking havoc with a gigantic cat toy cannot be overstated. But even with that said, a few more missions per event would have done wonders for better justifying “GB7’s” price tag.

Games 12/20/11: Striiv, Playstation 3D Display, Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue

From: Striiv
Price: $100

Yes, it’s awfully nice to carry around a single, compact device that replaces your telephone, calendar, netbook, camcorder, GPS, MP3 player, Game Boy, alarm clock and who knows what else.

But while attempts have been made to conquer the humble pedometer, they have thus far failed. Step-counting apps have flashed promise by doing more than simply counting steps, but they’re non-starters when you always need the app active and gulping down battery life. Never mind that pedometers are one of the few gadgets that actually make smartphones feel bulky by comparison.

In that respect, the arrival of Striiv — a device that combines the physical makeup of a pedometer, the digital sensibilities of a tiny iPod touch and the achievement-dangling compulsion of a contemporary video game — is as welcome as it probably was inevitable.

At its absolute core, Striiv is just a fancy pedometer. It’s light and small, and the full-color backlit touchscreen delivers an interface that’s prettier and considerably more intuitive than that of a typical pedometer. The device counts steps whether it’s on or off, you can drop it in your pocket and forget about it, and it discerns between walking, running and stair-climbing steps with impressive accuracy. The built-in battery lasts roughly a week between charges under normal use, and the package includes the necessary cables to charge it via USB or a wall outlet.

For those who like to gauge their progress, Striiv’s software is similarly impressive. A charts application lets you compare steps, miles and calories burned over the past week or month, and a separate stats program breaks down your step types and lets you view all-time totals, personal bests and daily averages.

But it’s the trophies and challenges that push Striiv beyond classification and blur the line between fitness aid and living video game.

Trophies function like achievements, awarding you for everything from beating your daily average to walking the equivalent of Peru’s Inca Trail (70,000 steps) in a week. There are daily, weekly and all-time trophies, and Striiv tracks how many times you earn trophies in the first two categories. Every trophy awards you with energy points, which are to Striiv what Gamerscore is to Xbox Live — mostly just a number, but a carrot that makes earning them irrationally (but healthily!) fun.

Challenges, meanwhile, are toggled manually but are more urgent once activated. Striiv scatters randomly-generated challenges across three difficulty levels (walk half a mile in a half hour on Easy, run 500 steps in 10 minutes on Medium) and tackling a handful of them and doing whatever it says makes for a great impromptu mini-workout. Like trophies, successful challenges pay out in energy, though you’ll also earn trophies if you complete enough of them in one day.

Striiv dangles a seemingly endless steam of attainable rewards, and the gamut they run in terms of size and time investment makes it easy to feel an immediately sense of progress while still eyeing a larger goal way down the road.

Additionally, while all that collected energy isn’t a very tangible reward, it does feed into some of the device’s more unusual extracurricular activities.

Most prominent is the quirky Myland minigame, in which you can populate and decorate an enchanted island by exchanging collected energy for plant life and manmade structures. As simulations go, Myland’s simplicity more closely resembles “Farmville” than “SimCity.” But grinding for rewards by walking and running is considerably more satisfying than nagging your Facebook friends until they unfriend you, and a lively island of fantastical creatures is a pretty clever way to view an abstract picture of your progress.

But the coolest use of your energy is as a conduit for acts of charity. Via GlobalGiving, Striiv lets you participate in virtual walkathons and convert bundles of energy into donations toward clean drinking water, polio vaccinations and/or rainforest conservation. (As with everything else, the device tracks how many contributions you make.)

Striiv sends the donations whenever you connect it to a Mac or PC via the USB charge cable, and it also uses this occasion to do another thing — check for and automatically apply firmware updates — pedometers typically never do.

Since release, the device has received a few minor firmware updates that have brought no major feature enhancements. But Striiv has made known its intentions to supply new programs and games through future updates. Little else is known at this point, but the company seems actively engaged with its community via Facebook, Twitter and its own blog. If you keep up, you’ll likely know what’s coming next as soon as it’s announced.


PlayStation 3D display
From: Sony
Price: $500

Your appreciation of Sony’s PlayStation 3D display will be at least partially dependent on how far on board you are with the entertainment industry’s umpteenth attempt to make 3D technology stick past the fad stage.

But while the display’s embrace of 3D — and Sony’s subsequent positioning of it as the rare 3D television with a three-figure asking price — are significant factors, they aren’t the only ones in play.

It’s worth clarifying up front that while the display sports Playstation branding, it doesn’t use any proprietary technology that only a Playstation 3 can understand. The range of inputs is a little limited, and you’ll need to get an adapter if you want to connect a VGA or DVI cable, but the input ports it does offer — two HDMI, one component — aren’t exactly unique to the PS3. If you can connect a device to the display, either natively or with the help of an adapter, it will look just fine (though if all you want is a top-end PC monitor, you can get displays with better refresh rates and native driver support for less money.)

It will look better than fine, in fact. Though the display isn’t designed with maximum flexibility and intuitiveness in mind — the glossy screen is pretty reflective in harsh light, the inputs are on the display’s left side instead of in a neutral spot at the bottom, and the buttons are placed awkwardly behind the display instead of on the side — it looks absolutely lovely once properly set up. It’s thin and sleek but also feels sturdy, and if the 24-inch screen is a good size for your setup and viewing range, the picture doesn’t disappoint.

While your success will vary if you use it with unsupported devices, the display’s 3D support in conjunction with games and Blu-ray discs worked as good as advertised when tested on a PS3. You’ll need to keep the included 3D glasses charged via the included micro-USB cable — in case you’ve lost track of where we are with 3D technology, the glasses are now battery-powered — but enabling 3D is as easy as selecting it in the game or Blu-ray’s menu interface.

(Your mileage will, of course, vary with regard to your tolerance of 3D and the potential eyestrain it incurs over extended sittings.)

For games that support it, the display’s SimulView technology arguably is the more exciting result of the 3D technology than 3D itself. With SimulView enabled, a two-player game no longer need be splitscreen: Instead, each player receives a unique (and complete) view of the action via his or her glasses. It’s like playing via LAN using one display, and while it sounds like voodoo, it actually works. Because the images passed to the glasses are 2D, the aforementioned concerns about viewing fatigue also don’t factor.

The downside? You’ll need a second pair of glasses, which retail for $70 each — which means the display isn’t quite as affordable as you thought if you wish to take advantage of its best feature.

There’s also a matter of games actually supporting SimulView. The bundled “MotorStorm: Apocalypse” supports it, as do a handful of other games published by Sony, but it’s anyone’s guess whether third parties will climb on board with their own support. Presently, there’s also no easy place to track which games are receiving or have received support. The display’s page on lists the initial batch above a “Coming soon” message, but there’s no telling if new information will appear there or elsewhere.


Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade; requires free Pinball FX 2 download) and Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network; requires Marvel Pinball)
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

2011 wasn’t a great year for video games bearing the Marvel name — unless you prefer pinball to other genres, in which case it was the best year ever. “Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue” adds four more tables to the roster, and they fit in perfectly in terms of personality and use of their respective licenses. The Thor table will appeal to those who love high-scoring tables, and in true “Marvel Pinball” fashion, Thor himself appears on the table to do battle with Loki (among other enemies) as you indirectly guide the action via pinball. The Ghost Rider table is the noisiest and most festive of the bunch, and the dual-layer table design is overshadowed only by an incredible second ball launcher that resembles a giant waving shotgun. The X-Men table presents the stiffest challenge via devious ramp designs that are harder to hit and unapologetically shift the ball’s speed when you do hit them. But Moon Knight’s table may be the most novel: It looks extremely simple at first glance, but it uses tricks of light and deceptive rail patterns to set a tempo that’s unlike any of the other tables (Marvel-branded or otherwise) on Zen’s roster. Like the tables that preceded it, “Vengeance’s” selections are extremely visually lively and reasonably authentic with regard to pinball physics. They also hide a startlingly deep array of missions and objectives beneath the surface. As per custom, the tables integrate seamlessly into their respective games, adding new achievements/trophies and adopting existing leaderboard and score structures, making the best pinball platforms on the console block that much better.

Games 5/24/11: L.A. Noire, Dream Trigger 3D, Pinball FX2: MARS, Pinball FX2: Fantastic Four

L.A. Noire
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Team Bondi/Rockstar
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs, violence)
Price: $60

Fans of Rockstar-published games might look at “L.A. Noire’s” marketing, see the usual Rockstar game symptoms, and very understandably assume that, just as “Red Dead Redemption” was “Grand Theft Auto” in the Old West, this is “GTA” in 1940s Los Angeles.

But while “Noire” looks and sounds like a “GTA” game, it plays almost nothing like one. In fact, it plays quite like no other game out there, and if you can give it a chance to grow on you, this police detective simulator achieves its objective skillfully and with exceptional confidence.

First, a word on what “Noire” is not. Though you’re free to explore this massive, meticulously replicated chunk of Los Angeles however you like, this isn’t your typical open-world game. There are random street crimes scattered outside the game’s main storyline, but the overwhelming majority of “Noire’s” activity lies along the main road.

Additionally, you cannot run around, Niko Bellic-style, and raise random hell. Outside of specific instances in which you’re trading bullets with criminals, you can’t even draw your weapon. You’re police detective Cole Phelps, and this is the story of his ascent through the ranks, not of the time he lost his mind and murdered half the city.

Perhaps more jarring is that, third-person shootouts and car chases aside, “Noire” is primarily an adventure game. Some criminals will die from your gun, but most of your play time will consist of carefully scouring crime scenes for evidence and using your findings — combined with smart witness questioning and suspect interrogation — to successfully close a case.

Games have covered this ground before, but “Noire” does it better by venturing beyond the usual adventure game limitations.

Crime scenes, for instance, aren’t restrictive, cause-and-effect pixel hunts; they’re wide-open areas you freely explore like you would in any other open-ended third-person game. Some wonderfully subtle (and, if you’re feeling confident, optional) musical clues tell you if you’re near clues or have found all there is to find, but if you proceed to interrogation before fully turning a scene inside out, “Noire” does not intervene.

That goes as well for interviews. “Noire” compiles questions from clues you find, and you’re tasked with believing, challenging or (if you have evidence to back it up) outright accusing interviewees of deceit. “Noire” leaves it up to you to read people’s faces for signs of dishonesty, and it provides the means for doing so with some frighteningly advanced facial animation technology.

Occasionally, you can request help — most cleverly, via an “Ask the Community” feature that polls other players’ responses in the same situation. But “Noire” mostly lets you sink or swim here as well. If you fudge a line of questioning that undermines a case, the game doesn’t ask you to try again. The story barrels ahead, with the consequences of your misdeeds funneling into the overarching storyline.

(Don’t worry, completionists: You can replay completed cases as you please.)

The only place you’ll see a retry button is if you die in a shootout or get caught while stealthily tailing a suspect, but “Noire” keeps the difficulty of these portions pretty tepid.

Compared to “Noire’s” creative, lavishly detailed crime scene searches and its polished interrogation interfaces, the actual action is more sufficient than exemplary. The cars handle well and the cover-based shooting works perfectly fine, but both function more as dessert than the main course. Given how perfectly Team Bondi prepared that main course, that’ll more than do.


Dream Trigger 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Art Co. Ltd./D3Publisher of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $40

At first glance, “Dream Trigger 3D” looks like the fresh and totally bananas game some of us have been waiting for since the Nintendo 3DS launched with a lineup full of safe sequels and retreads.

At first play, the game seems absolutely impossible — a ridiculous mix of old-school shooter, “Lumines” and “Rez” that appears punishingly hard even on its very first level.

Upon subsequent playthroughs, though, the pieces that comprise the madness reveal their intricacies, and “Trigger” turns into a manageably frantic game with some unique ideas.

Unfortunately, that quickly leads to a whole new and wholly surprising problem: Is “Trigger,” which initially felt fresh and brutally imposing, really just shallow and way too easy instead?

It’s hard to translate “Trigger’s” methods into words that do it justice, but let’s try.

On “Trigger’s” top screen is your spaceship, which you control with either the joystick or D-pad. Surrounding you, along with the occasional power-up, are blips of light that are enemies who can attack you but are, in that incarnation, invincible.

To make them vulnerable, you have to use the touch screen, which functions like a radar screen and illustrates your invisible enemies as dots on a map. Drawing over those dots, and letting the “Lumines”-like sonar bar run over your scribbles, makes them visible on the top screen, where your ship is now free to blast them into oblivion.

Here’s the catch: Your ship only shoots forward, so you have to come into direct contact with each enemy to destroy it. The counter-catch, is that while your ship is firing, it’s invincible. The counter to that is that your ship can fire for only so long until it’s vulnerable again, and the best way to recharge your firepower is to continually expose new enemies with sonar.

Throw all those catches and conditions into one pot, turn the speed up, set the whole thing to a complementary musical beat and place it in front of various scrolling backgrounds that take terrific advantage of the 3DS’ 3D capabilities, and “Trigger” is an exciting exercise in managing two planes of activity at once.

Problem is, once you figure out the science behind it all, “Trigger” doesn’t throw any curveballs or do anything to meaningfully enhance it. There’s the appearance of a lot of content inside the box — a 55-level quest mode, free play, time attack, in-game achievements, two-player local wireless co-op and competitive multiplayer. But outside of aesthetics, little about the game changes from one level to another, and if you can beat the first level, you almost certainly can beat the last.

Perhaps most troubling is “Trigger’s” tendency to crash the 3DS entirely when the 3D slider is on — a rather significant issue, considering this is one of the better visual implementations thus far of the new system’s most prominent new feature.

Is this the game’s fault or the system’s firmware’s fault? Is this fixable with a patch? Are patches even possible on the 3DS? And if they are, does this mean the 3DS has joined the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in the unfortunate age of the patch? Time will tell, but there’s nothing comforting about these early findings, and it’s impossible to recommend purchase of a game that, at least for now, is prone to these breakdowns.


Pinball FX2: MARS
Pinball FX2: Fantastic Four
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade (requires free Pinball FX 2 dow
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Comic Mischief)
Price: $3 each

The tables keep rolling in for the endlessly expandable “Pinball FX 2,” and the latest additions keep the bar as high as it’s been since launch. The “Fantastic Four” table complements the Marvel four-pack Zen released last December, and like those tables, it makes excellent use of the comic’s heroes and villains by bringing them to life right on the table. In fact, its utilization of the The Thing, who guards the top of the table and can literally pick the ball up and swat it back at you like a volleyball, may be the most amusing application yet of a Marvel character in “PFX2.” The Mars table — a revamped version of a previously-released “Zen Pinball” table — appears less flashy at first glance. But once a Space Station soars in for a landing over your head or you make acquaintance with patrolling scanner bots or a spider bot who saves your ball, it’s clear that first impression was deceiving. The Mars table also features one of the better ramp layouts in a “PFX2” table thus far. Like its predecessors, both tables look terrific, handle authentically and hide a startlingly deep array of missions and objectives beneath the surface. Both tables also integrate seamlessly into “PFX2?s” overriding achievements, leaderboards and score structure, making the best video game pinball platform around that much better.

Games 12/7/10: Disney Epic Mickey, The Shoot, Marvel Pinball

Disney Epic Mickey
For: Wii
From: Junction Point Studios/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

The gift of your patience is requested in “Disney Epic Mickey,” which asks you to accept some baffling game design decisions in order to experience what might be the most ingenious merger ever between a studio’s icon and its dormant vault.

“Mickey” begins with a slightly mischievous but very clumsy Mickey Mouse accidentally bringing untold destruction to a world, known as the Wasteland, where forgotten Disney cartoon characters reside in retirement. The Wasteland was something of a utopia in spite of its dispiriting premise, but Mickey’s screwup has reduced it to a grey, monster-drenched mess that finally earns its name.

“Mickey” mostly plays like your typical 3D platformer, with players (as Mickey) running and jumping through non-linear levels to complete various objectives, sometimes a few at a time. The hook here is that, while running and jumping, players also must hold the Wii remote like a pointer and shoot paint and/or paint thinner at enemies and other objects in the environment.

As a tool for restoring and destroying the Wasteland, the paint/thinner idea works great. “Mickey’s” levels are intricate and full of secrets, and Mickey can use paint and thinner to alter those levels on the fly and access areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. Most of the rewards are trivial, but the intuition and dexterity needed to find them makes for a fun elective challenge.

The paint/thinner trick also lets “Mickey” take the story down two different paths without basing Mickey’s morality (or lack thereof) around boring good/evil answers. Mickey can complete objectives by using paint to turn enemies (even boss enemies) friendly, rescue allies and restore the environment, and he can use thinner to destroy everybody, ravage the environment and coerce a way to safety. “Mickey’s” opening levels make the means to each end plainly obvious, but the lines between hero and scoundrel increasingly blur as the levels and tasks develop complications.

It’s too bad this isn’t all there is to “Mickey,” which has more than enough core game content to avoid depending on needless filler. But it leans on filler anyway, interrupting stretches of action with story-mandated fetch quests that, beyond the opportunity to meet additional discarded toons, offer nothing in the way of stimulation. The quests never challenge, not even intellectually, and when they ask players to backtrack between areas, they’re as time-consuming as they are dull.

“Mickey’s” other big issue — a camera that regularly needs babysitting — is a bit more predictable given the demands placed on the Wii remote, and its inability to keep up will almost inevitably sabotage your progress in harder levels with heavy combat demands. It’s annoying, but it isn’t a deal-killer, and the quicker you master the auto-center button, the less harmful it is.

The aggravations are worth it because, as stories go, this is the best one Disney’s iconic characters have told in ages. “Mickey” transforms Mickey Mouse back into the morally unpredictable rat he used to be before Disney neutered him, and the respect the game pays to Walt Disney’s past creations — Oswald the Rabbit, Horace Horsecollar, Big Bad Pete and so many more — is surprisingly moving. “Mickey’s” core levels are a similarly stirring mess of discarded theme park rides and toys, and the game connects these levels with short 2D levels that send Mickey running and jumping through scenes from old Disney filmstrips.

The level of care in every drop of this celebration makes “Mickey’s” missteps even more puzzling than they would be in a more careless game. But if those missteps are the price one must pay to witness one of the most imaginative stories told in a game this year, so be it.


The Shoot
For: Playstation 3 (requires Playstation Move)
From: Cohort Studios/Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, fantasy violence, mild language)

Against all odds, the light gun shooter has survived 25 years of gaming advancements that probably should have rendered it obsolete. And thanks to the advent of the Playstation Move, it finally, against even greater odds, gets a chance to ever-so-slightly evolve.

Even before that becomes apparent, “The Shoot” makes a pretty likable first impression. The game is set on a movie studio lot, and each four-pack of scenes takes place in a different genre — western, alien invasion, mob shootout, horror story, deep sea plunge — of movie. Players (either alone or with a friend via local multiplayer) are the star of the film, and a director barks instruction and expresses satisfaction or scorn depending on how the scene is playing out.

The clever premise pays off by letting “The Shoot” throw out a more diverse variety of environments than most rail shooters get, and it also gives the game a degree of levity that, outside of unintentional humor from bad storytelling, rarely shows up in this genre anymore. The graphics are nice and colorful, and while some will scratch their head at the game’s decision to present enemies in prop form — enemy mobsters, for instance, are wooden cutouts rather than actual people — it’s a surprisingly good look in motion.

The appetite for props also lets “The Shoot” better show off how destructible everything is. Levels are full of optional bonus targets that award points, alter the environment and even open pathways to “deleted scenes” that award additional bonus points. But even completely inconsequential backdrop pieces break apart nicely when you miss your target and hit them instead, making the game a lively experience even when played incorrectly.

Clever gimmick notwithstanding, “The Shoot’s” core concepts and objectives remain as pure as those of any other arcade shooter. The primary goal is, as always, to score as many points as possible, minimize mistakes, and hit targets in succession without fail to boost the score multiplier and achieve gold-medal (career mode) and five-star (score attack mode) scores. Blowing through “The Shoot’s” five films won’t take more than a few hours, but nabbing every medal, star and hidden bonus is a legitimately fun challenge that, for the right crowd, gives this game plenty of legs.

Where “The Shoot” moves the needle a little is through an assist from the Move’s ability to do more than just mimic a light gun. Made of wood or not, the enemies regularly fight back, and the game gives players a chance to dodge the projectiles they fire. Sections with more dangerous enemies occasionally call for players to duck behind cover, duels against special enemies play out like quickdraw shootouts, and a special power-up that temporarily slows down the action only activates when players perform a spin move or wave the Move wand overhead like a lasso.

During the most frantic stretches of the game, when all these parts are in play, “The Shoot” becomes a surprisingly active game. Better still, though, it remains a responsive game. Mastering the timing of the dodge takes practice, but the game does a good job of reading dodges once you figure it out, and it’s similarly proficient with ducking, spinning and dueling. (The lasso motion is hit-or-miss, so be prepared to spin instead of trying to take the easier way out.)


Marvel Pinball
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade (requires free Pinball FX 2 download)
Also available for: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network (sta
ndalone game)
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10 for all four tables (both platforms) or $2.50 per table (Xbox 360 only)

Zen Studios set the table for something special in October when it rolled out “Pinball FX 2” as a free and endlessly extensible Xbox 360 pinball platform instead of a standalone game, and the first batch of add-on tables provides some serious validation for all that excitement. “Marvel Pinball” features four tables, with Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wolverine and Blade each spearheading a machine. The inclusion of Blade in that foursome may raise eyebrows, but “Pinball” seems to have picked its heroes with pinball design instead of popularity in mind, and one playthrough of the Blade table — which features, among several other surprises, a day/night cycle with different opportunities in both phases — overwhelmingly justifies his inclusion here. The pinball version of Stark Industries, meanwhile, becomes a maze of ramps, side rail decoys and upgrades with which to turn a dancing Tony Stark into Iron Man, while the Spider-Man table’s idea of multi-ball comes in the form of bombs lobbed by the Green Goblin. Both the Spider-Man and Wolverine tables feature a satisfying roster of iconic villains, and skilled players who rack up bonuses can watch Wolverine fight on the table while the pinball action continues. The PS3 version of “Pinball” rounds up the tables as a perfectly enjoyable standalone game, but for those with a choice, the tables’ integration into “PFX2’s” overriding achievements, leaderboards and score structure make the Xbox 360 versions the better value for now.

Games 3/2/10: Heavy Rain, MLB 2K10, Borderlands: The Secret Armory of General Knoxx

Heavy Rain
For: Playstation 3
From: Quantic Dream/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature

Early on, when it becomes clear just how good “Heavy Rain” is at doing the unique little things it does, it also becomes clear that this might be the first video game capable — to a stunningly unsettling degree and under the cover of complete banality — of making players feel like a lousy parent.

The guilt is somewhat temporary, if only because “Rain” periodically shifts the player between four characters — two detectives, a photojournalist and a fourth person whose role won’t be specified for spoiler-proofing purposes — with ties to a story centered around a serial killer and a race to find his latest abductee alive.

But “Rain” has a knack for using small details and interactions to engender some surprisingly strong connections to all four characters, and those connections prove invaluable toward transforming a reasonably conventional suspense thriller into something pretty special. That some of them are borne out of completely pedestrian moments — one character helping his son with his homework, another reaching for his inhaler during an asthma attack — speak to the game’s striking attention to detail.

The connection between player and characters appears to be “Rain’s” primary objective, and the game goes to unconventional gameplay lengths to fulfill its mission. The camera perspective harkens back to “Resident Evil’s” formative years, and “Rain’s” walking controls — hold R2 to walk and use only the left stick to control all movement — fall similarly in line. It’s initially jarring and, in certain tight spaces, clumsy.

But in the context of everything else, it also makes sense. “Rain” uses the rest of the controller for a myriad of small, context-sensitive movements — a measured pull on the right stick to sip coffee without spilling, a quick twirl to open an envelope, a tilt of the controller to yank the steering wheel during a skid down the highway, timed alternate presses of L1 and R1 to straighten out a character’s left and right feet while he climbs a slippery mud hill.

“Rain” handles the majority of these actions through time-sensitive onscreen prompts, which on paper sounds like a nightmare to gamers already fed up with developers’ overuse of the technique.

But where most games seem to spit out random prompts without any rhythm, “Rain” maps them so thoughtfully as to change the entire tenor of the mechanic. The input choices make actual sense, and “Rain” uses numerous techniques with regard to combinations, timing and speed of execution to match the situation on the screen. The attention to detail, once again, makes all the difference.

These scenarios have additional significance because, unlike almost every game ever, “Rain” only flashes a “Game Over” screen when the story ends. Failed challenges and foolish decisions with regard to the story’s many moral and dialogue choices can kill a playable character, and if a character dies, the story still continues.

“Rain’s” four characters face some 20 or so combined fates that can lead to dramatically different stories for different players, and it often isn’t the obvious decisions and scenarios that can take the storyline down a completely different road. Dare we say it again? Attention to small details sometimes makes all the difference, and that’s true of the player as well as the game.


MLB 2K10
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Playstation 2, Windows PC, Sony PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Visual Concepts/2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s usually a pretty funny sight when a major league pitcher completely fouls up and accidentally launches a pitch six feet over the catcher’s head.

But Visual Concepts seems to think it’s downright hilarious, because it happens more times in one game of “MLB 2K10” than it likely will throughout the entire 2010 season.

To be fair, “2K10’s” pitching controls, which use right-joystick gestures to control the speed and movement of each pitch, are considerably more user-friendly than “2K9’s” system. Conceivably, it’s also more fun to pitch this way than by hitting buttons and navigating meters.

But just like in “2K9,” the margin for error is absurdly fickle. Miss the gesture by a tick, and even a fastball sails out of the strike zone. Miss it by two ticks, and it flies wildly over the catcher’s head. The degree between a lights-out pitch and a wild pitch is unrealistically small, and players who lack surgeon hands are bound to pay unfairly because of it.

The continued problems with pitching underscore the story of “2K10” as a whole. It’s better than its broken predecessor and has some nice overdue features — most notably the My Player mode, which apes Sony’s MLB game by allowing players to experience a professional career from a single player’s perspective. But too much sloppiness carries over to call this a return to the series’ better days, and because those new features don’t fix the regressions the series has endured over time, they feel the same effects.

The best news about “2K9” is that the aggravating (and occasionally hilarious) bugs that often changed a game — disappearing outfielders, fielders catching balls with their face, baserunners running to who knows where — appear squashed.

But numerous weird instances remain — including, for instance, baserunners’ bizarre propensity to slide into first far too often. Occasionally, the runner gets up and inexplicably rounds first without getting tagged out even though the first baseman has the ball. Once in a while, he’ll slide into first before circling the bases after hitting a home run.

Strange occurrences like these don’t cripple “2K10’s” gameplay so much as damage the illusion, but when something so instantly and continually out of place in “2K9” shows up yet again in “2K10,” it speaks either to the developers’ disinterest in refinement or its inability to understand its subject matter. That, in turn, kills hope that real problems — including A.I. pitchers picking off would-be stealers with psychic accuracy and the aforementioned wild pitch bonanza — will ever get a patch.

Per tradition, “2K10” allows players to adjust difficulty sliders to somewhat mitigate these problems, but players who do so also lose access to all unlockable achievements, trophies and virtual baseball cards — as if “2K10” is punishing players who just want to take extra steps to enjoy their $60 purchase rather than fight it.

As always, those who play with friends or online will benefit the most, if only because both teams have the same issues to overcome. Questionable gameplay aside, “2K10” at least delivers in terms of features, with full-featured online leagues and the fun highlight reel editing and sharing tool back for another season.


Borderlands: The Secret Armory of General Knoxx
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
Requires: Borderlands
From: Gearbox Software/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, strong language)
Price: $10

A lot of people weren’t thrilled with the second “Borderlands” downloadable pack, which felt more like a self-contained (and oppressively difficult) extra mode than a seamless extension of the game world. For those folks and everyone else who loves that world, this latest pack is more like it. “The Secret Armory Of General Knoxx” introduces a huge new plot of frontier to explore, and with that comes new instances of everything — guns, vehicles, enemies (hello giant mechs), main/side missions, weird characters, dark humor — that make the main game great. The level cap receives an overdue boost, from 50 to 61, and with that comes new privileges with regard to abilities and rare weapon types. All the rewards naturally carry back into the rest of the game, and per “Borderlands” tradition, Gearbox encourages multiple playthroughs by dialing up the difficulty and payoff the second time around. Just be sure to have your wits about you before digging in: Gearbox recommends players enter “Knoxx” at around level 35, which means beating the main game’s storyline first is advisable. “Knoxxx” won’t stop anyone who wishes to dive in sooner than that, but it also won’t scale down its difficulty to accommodate low-level characters, so consider this your fair warning if you’re feeling bold.

Games 1/5/10: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers, Borderlands: Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, Piyo Blocks

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers
For: Wii
From: Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, crude humor, fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes)

For better or worse — and a trip through this game provides ample evidence of both — “Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers” is trying to do exactly what Wii games should be doing in the system’s fourth year of existence. Whether the result is good or not — and again, the pendulum swings both ways — “Bearers” does things that are unique, weird and physically impossible on other hardware.

“Bearers” certainly gets off to a fun start — first, by tossing players into a free-falling shootout in the sky, and then by putting them at the literal wheel of a humungous airship for a chase sequence through tight canyon corridors. The convoluted storytelling aside — and per “Crystal Chronicles” tradition, the tale of good, evil and crystals is a potpourri of incomprehensible mythology and bad dialogue — it’s clear almost immediately that “Bearers” is going for a much more action-oriented bent than its series predecessors.

The game’s primary means of action also steps far outside traditional “Final Fantasy” bounds: Using a cursor-centric aiming system, players point the Wii remote at people and objects on the screen and then lift them into the air, Darth Vader-style, to move or toss them around. Anyone who played “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed” can grasp the combat and level-manipulation possibilities here, and while “Bearers'” control scheme and camerawork leave plenty to be desired, it nonetheless fulfills that promise.

The combination of this core mechanic, a sloppily passable story, “Final Fantasy” iconography and a consistent barrage of experimental diversions — from Chocobo races to a flawed but fun stealth challenge to a completely bizarre game involving girls, a beach and good balance — is enough to make “Bearers” fun when it works.

But “Bearers” often falls short, and when it does, it falls hard. Worse, the most offensive problems stem from lousy design decisions that would seem almost mandatorily avoidable in 2010.

Far and away the game’s biggest issue is the onscreen prompts it uses to instruct players on what to do during these one-off diversions. Too many of them are confusingly vague, while a few are cryptic to the point of misleading, throwing up meters without explanation and displaying controller animations that only barely resemble what a player is supposed to actually do. “Bearers” is generous with save checkpoints and many of these diversions are impossible to completely fail outright, but stumbling your way through a badly-designed challenge isn’t fun simply because it doesn’t halt your progress.

The problems are less acute during the main adventure, but they’re no aggravating. The opaque map and navigation system feel strikingly unfinished given Square-Enix’s experience with interface design in traditional “Final Fantasy” games, and getting lost or slogging from point to point is entirely too easy. That isn’t helped by the fact that during these slogs, there simply isn’t much to do. For every example of blinding ingenuity “Bearers” displays, there are two or three that feel perplexingly amateurish, and the ratio may prove too much for all but the most ardent and adventurous “Final Fantasy” fans to handle for very long.


Borderlands: Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
Requires: Borderlands
From: Gearbox Software/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, strong language)
Price: $10

Though entirely enjoyable as a solo first-person shooter experience, “Borderlands” relies on a story, quest and inventory structure that’s best enjoyed with teammates (four players online, two locally) via cooperative play. Happily, players who want it both ways have the flexibility to play parts of the game alone and bring in friends on the fly without starting over as a new character.

Good thing, too, because whether you’ve played “Borderlands” alone, with friends or both up to this point, there’s pretty much no point in playing the “Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot” downloadable expansion without help.

As its name somewhat implies, “Riot” ditches the typical exploratory nature of “Borderlands'” quests in favor of post-apocalyptic arena combat: Moxxi is the host, and her “sport” consists of a survivor or four shooting their way out of a labyrinth that’s parts shanty town, stadium and game show studio. Moxxi emcees the action, and between her amusing taunts and the general gaudy design of the three arenas, “Riot” is a fantastic demonstration of the audiovisual spectacle that makes “Borderlands” so unique in spite of its bleak setting and genre.

Just don’t bask in the spectacle alone unless you really enjoy punishment.

“Riot” divides each match into five rounds, and those rounds split into five themed waves. Completing each wave consists of mowing down every enemy in the arena, and the reward for doing so is a brief supply drop of ammo and health. When all five waves of a round are wiped out, Moxxi drops a few items of actual value beneath the stage. Complete all 25 waves, and the match ends. Easy, right?

Not so much — and definitely not if you’re playing alone. Players who succumb to the enemy can continue to assist in the fight, but are confined to a penalty box until the next wave. If all players get sent to the box, gameplay halts and the round starts over from the first wave.

The task of conquering the harder waves and rounds is daunting enough, particularly when Moxxi alters the rules to remove gravity, nullify certain weapons useless or even strip away players’ shields. The challenge amplifies when fighting alone, and it’s made arguably unfair by the fact that if you get banished to the penalty box, the round automatically starts over by virtue of your having no teammates on the ground. Because “Riot” puzzlingly awards no experience points for killing enemies in the arena, it amounts to a lot of effort for no reward.

Though the continued emphasis on teamwork in “Borderlands” is admirable, it would’ve been nice, just this one time and only because the pool of “Borderlands” players has understandably shrunk since October, if Gearbox backed down a little and allowed solo players to enlist an A.I.-controlled teammate or two. “Riot” offers players a mountain of content and perhaps the stiffest challenge so far, but unless you make a pact with friends to take it on together, proceed with caution.


Piyo Blocks
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Big Pixel Studios
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $2

Turnabout appears to be fair play to “Piyo Blocks,” which borrows some unmistakable design points from a game, “Zoo Keeper,” that itself was a pretty transparent knock-off of “Bejeweled.” If you’ve played “Bejeweled” — and pretty much everyone in the world has at this point — the core gameplay in “Blocks” offers little surprise: A grid of colored blocks fills the screen, and players switch two blocks to create as many rows of three or more as possible before time runs out. Creating rows clears the blocks and adds some time to the clock, and meeting certain quotas (as defined by “Blocks'” three separate modes) advances the action to new levels with trickier (albeit randomly-generated) starting patterns. Though it doesn’t have “Keeper’s” charming animal characters, “Blocks” still pretty faithfully mimics that game’s cheerful, intentionally blocky good looks. More importantly, it gets the basic mechanics of “Keeper’s” controls — including the ability to string combos together while the game clears other blocks away — down perfectly. For a game that costs less than a bag of chips, the level of polish, if not the originality of the concept, is most impressive. For good measure, Big Pixel includes support for the OpenFeint network, which provides online leaderboards, friends support, chat functionality and achievements.

Games 8/11/09: Space Bust-a-Move, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta

Space Bust-a-Move
For: Nintendo DS
From: Taito/Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

A dramatic overhaul would not appear to be in the cards for “Bust-a-Move,” which has stuck to the same script — shoot bubbles toward a cluster of bubbles at the top of the screen and match sets of three or more same-colored bubbles to clear them — for ages now. That’s doubly true for “Space Bust-a-Move,” which isn’t even the first “Bust-a-Move” game to appear on the DS.

But within the confines of that formula, “Space” turns out to be a surprising departure from 2006’s plain-named “Bust-a-Move DS” — and not just because, for whatever reason, it takes place in space.

The starkest change comes in the control scheme. The first DS game used a fun touch screen mechanic that allowed you to shoot bubbles with a virtual slingshot, but “Space” opts for more traditional, button-friendly controls (D-pad to aim the bubble shooter, shoulder buttons to fire). You can use the touch screen to emulate the button controls, but it’s disadvantageously slow.

But the loss of slingshot controls, which took up the entire touch screen in “BAM DS,” isn’t in vain. “Space” shifts the action down so that the shooter and the bubble cluster share the same screen, which also alleviates the previous game’s biggest problem: that annoying gap between the two screens and the havoc it could wreak on a perfectly-angled shot. The top screen generally serves a presentational purpose, which means different things in different modes.

The big exception to that rule takes place during “Space’s” entirely nonsensical but entirely wonderful story mode, which finally gives Bub and Bob some narrative motivation for clearing all those bubbles. It also blesses “Space” with some impressive two-screen boss fights, and guess what? “Bust-a-Move’s” gameplay lends itself startlingly well to boss fights.

The story mode headlines a slew of new feature tweaks “Space” tosses at the wall to belie its $20 asking price. Single-card local multiplayer (four players, down from five) returns, and the debut of online multiplayer (four players) goes off without a hitch despite some occasional and very temporary lag issues.

For dedicated solo players, a game-wide rewards system awards currency good toward unlocking a handful of alternative modes that tack on different rules to the standard “Bust-a-Move” gameplay. “Space” even tosses in a “Brain Age”-style challenge system, which tracks daily progress through a pair of time trial challenges. The customary, no-frills endless mode is, of course, in there as well.

Under the “useless but cool” umbrella, “Space” also lets you use the rewards currency to change the bubble and shooter designs, which only enhances what already amounts to a hilariously whimsical explosion of audiovisual cute. Charming though “BAM DS” was, “Space” ups the ante in every respect, and the goofy storyline knocks it out of the park.


G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Nintendo Wii, Playstation 2, PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Double Helix/EA

Double Helix wants to take you down memory lane with “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” but it probably isn’t the destination anyone had in mind.

Rather, instead of capitalizing on the nostalgia of the cartoon and toys that inspired the movie of the same name, “Cobra” evokes memories of the original Playstation era, when third-person shooters first ventured into three dimensions but lacked the sophistication or capability to do the things we now take for granted.

Instead of over the shoulder or even behind the back, “Cobra’s” action takes place from a partial bird’s-eye view. The right analog stick controls neither the camera, which sits at a fixed perspective, nor your weapons’ aiming reticule, which doesn’t even come into play. Holding a trigger activates the game’s auto-aim capability, and all the right stick does is swap between enemy targets. In terms of shooting sophistication, “Cobra” doesn’t even approach “Robotron,” much less “Gears of War.”

“Cobra” attempts to compensate for the mindless demands by laying down a pretty thick gauntlet of enemies. The game tips its cap to present day by including a cover mechanic, but the action tends to get so manic that you’re almost better off continually running and dive-rolling under hails of gunfire whenever your Joe’s health needs replenishment.

Sometimes, you don’t have a choice. “Cobra’s” fixed camera usually does what it should, but there are recurrent instances in which you’ll be firing blind because the enemies have spawned from behind or have populated an area before the camera swings around to show them. “Cobra” flirts with complete disaster during fights against ultra-powerful mechs that are only vulnerable from behind: Not only does the camera lag miserably while you try to get in position for a sneak attack, but occasionally it hides the enemy altogether, which for obvious reasons is a potentially fatal problem.

Dying is no small matter in “Cobra,” either. Each mission features two faux-checkpoints, but failing a mission sends you back to the start no matter where that failure happens. You can sidestep this problem by playing “Cobra” on its easiest difficulty, which revives your Joe ad nauseam until you beat the mission, but there’s no real gratification in playing a game you essentially cannot lose.

The strange nods to outdated conventions, along with “Cobra’s” bland presentation — a byproduct of staying faithful to an equally drab film — add up to a game that cannot possibly be universally praised nor recommended as a $50 purchase in 2009.

But “Cobra’s” unwavering adherence to its bizarre design sensibilities also makes it more unique than the bevy of third-person shooters that aim higher. When the game isn’t getting in its own way — and, particularly, when you have a friend (offline only) instead of the computer playing alongside you as the second Joe — “Cobra” makes for a stupidly fun good time for an audience that can appreciate the old-time mentality. For that small sliver of the gaming public, this has “guilty pleasure” stamped all over it.


Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta
For: Xbox 360 and PC
Requires: Fallout 3
From: Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)
Price: $10

It’s been an exemplary ride for “Fallout 3,” which followed a fantastic core game with four pieces of downloadable content that each improved on what came before it. So it’s quite a shame to see “Mothership Zeta” not only end the game’s run on a down note, but lay bare “Fallout 3’s” most glaring weaknesses in doing so. The premise, which finds you the object of a 1950s-style alien abduction, is no slouch, and it certainly marks a departure from everything that preceded it. But it also means you’re conducting business almost entirely in the tight confinements of a spaceship, traversing one generic corridor after another while doing little more than hitting a few switches and blasting the same aliens and drones ad nauseam. “Fallout 3’s” shooting mechanics have always fared competently in the wide-open wasteland against a wandering enemy or two, but they’re a nightmare in a claustrophobic hallway against a half-dozen ruthless aliens. Some audio logs and a few cool (but only incrementally more powerful) weapons aside, “Zeta” also leaves nothing to discovery, which arguably is the bread and butter of the “Fallout 3” experience. The listless story isn’t nearly compelling enough to counter all that’s wrong here, and it’s probably best to save those $10 for 2010’s “Fallout: New Vegas” instead of spending it here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Games 5/12/09: Klonoa (Wii), Fallout 3: Broken Steel, Top Gun (iPhone)

For: Nintendo Wii
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild cartoon violence)

It’s hard not to admire Namco’s resilient love for “Klonoa,” which soldiers on despite more than a decade without ever setting foot in mainstream popularity’s ballpark.

“Klonoa” takes it back to the beginning on the Wii with a philosophically verbatim remake of the 1997 original that debuted on the original Playstation.

The predictable changes are here on schedule. The blocky 3D graphics are completely redone and look thoroughly modern (by Wii standards) thanks to better animation and a much smoother framerate. Gibberish gives way to a full complement of voice actors, who class up what remains a pretty goofy storyline.

Beyond that and a few new bonus stages, though, it’s the same game “Klonoa” fans adore and everyone else may or may not understand — even more so in 2009 than in 1997.

That’s because “Klonoa” is, despite its graphics and its ability to utilize the third dimension, a 2D platformer in the classic “Super Mario Bros.” vein. Levels change orientation as you twist around corners, and you can interact with certain objects that lie in front of or behind you, but you mostly are moving left and right rather than in all 360 degrees. The levels generally operate in linear fashion despite a few discoverable secrets off the beaten path.

Perhaps more distressing is “Klonoa’s” length (roughly five hours your first time through) and difficulty (pretty easy). Platforming aficionados hungry for a nail-biting challenge will not find it here.

Then again, there’s a reason a devoted swath of that very audience is what has kept this series afloat. “Klonoa’s” levels rarely leave you in great peril, but they’re imaginatively designed and a whole lot of fun to traverse anyway. The game doesn’t demand reflex perfection, but it fully understands what a good obstacle course should look like. This attention to design, combined with a control scheme that finds the happy medium between looseness and responsiveness, make those levels a whole lot of fun to run, jump and climb through.

The same philosophy holds true for the game’s enemy and boss quotient. They won’t fray your nerves like “Mega Man’s” enemies can, but taking them down is strangely, enjoyably satisfying anyway.

Hitting that seemingly unhittable sweet spot between mindlessly easy gameplay and something hardened platforming veterans can enjoy allows “Klonoa” to be one of those rare Wii games that speaks equally to everyone without leaning on gimmickry. Kids and novice players can wet their feet here, while others can have a completely different kind of fun blowing through the game every now and then. “Klonoa” remains a cult classic 12 years on because it’s as fun to replay as it is short and easy to beat, and the Wii makeover (to say nothing of the $30 price tag) does nothing to change that.


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

Your successful ability to download “Fallout 3: Broken Steel” will be acknowledged in “Fallout 3” via a dialogue box stating as much, but beyond that — and unlike “Fallout 3’s” previous content packs, which jetted you off to faux-Anchorage and Pittsburgh — “Steel” leaves it up to you to find it.

That, mostly, is due to the fact that “Steel” not only takes place after the events of “Fallout 3,” but possibly alters some of those events as well. If you’ve witnessed the game’s final scene, you likely know what, precisely, needs altering.

Awkward though it is for Bethesda to basically change the storyline seven months after “Fallout 3” first appeared, the new narrative developments should please players soured by the original, abrupt finish. In addition to telling a better story, “Steel” makes it possible to continue playing at your leisure once the main storyline wraps — a huge boon given that the vast majority of “Fallout 3’s” content is optional and waiting to be discovered far outside the bounds of the main storyline. (As if to motivate you further, “Steel” raises your character’s level cap from 20 to 30 and throws in a few new perks that appear designed to reward players who wish to step off the main road.)

First, though, the story continues. Without spoiling anything for those who are no where near the game’s conclusion, here’s the basic rundown: The enemy you may or may not have taken down at the game’s conclusion has hit back, and your job is to find out how that’s even possible, to say nothing of how to stop it.

The six new missions — three mandatory, three optional — keep you inside the Wasteland, but they take you to some new areas of D.C. that did not exist previously. “Steel” also introduces you to some brutally tough new strains of familiar enemies and, per usual, counters that with some new gear — including some new weaponry that makes some of your existing arsenal look peashooter-esque by comparison.

One could credibly argue that the level cap and ending adjustments feel like a digital mea culpa that Bethesda would simply have given away as a patch in the days before paid downloadable content became the norm. “Steel” is as attractive for those tweaks as it is for the new missions and content, and any frustrations stemming from having to pay extra for (or, in the case of spurned Playstation 3 owners, never experiencing) something that should have been there all along are completely reasonable.

But those frustrations won’t change anything at this stage, so the point is moot. “Steel’s” primary objective is to live up to its $10 price tag, and it easily succeeds when all is tallied and considered. If you only indulge in one of “Fallout 3’s” downloadable episodes, this is the one to get.


Top Gun
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Freeverse/Paramount
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $2, though Paramount has indicated this is subject to change shortly

For all the talk about the wretched history of movie-based video games, the 1986 rendition of “Top Gun” remains an arguable Nintendo Entertainment System classic. How nice, then, to see the spirit of that game so overtly entrenched in this one. The new “Top Gun” features the kind of modern frills one expects, including a softer learning curve, achievements and a sufficient (though very visually strange) storyline to glue its 10 missions together. At its core, though, the objectives — dodge enemy fire, take down enemy planes — remain as pleasantly straightforward as ever. Freeverse’s most clever gameplay addition is a cheekily-named “Danger Zone” mechanic: The longer you stay in a danger zone — and thus, completely vulnerable to enemy fire — the more points you rack up. (As if to beat the point home, the Kenny Loggins song of the same name provides a portion of the game’s soundtrack, which, fortunately, can be muted.) “Gun’s” tilt-based flying controls work as they should, and taking down enemy aircraft is as easy on the touch screen as it is on the NES pad. Sadly, and in stark contrast to the famously difficult NES game, you can’t attempt to land the plane yourself once the battle ends.

Games 4/28/09: Excitebots: Trick Racing, Rhythm Heaven, Left 4 Dead Survival Pack

Excitebots: Trick Racing
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Monster Games/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)

For all the credit “Wii Sports” garners as the Wii’s gateway drug, perhaps no Nintendo-branded game better demonstrates the benefits of motion controls than “Excite Truck,” which launched on the same day and aptly set itself apart from other racing games in ways no non-Wii game ever could.

The entirety of that game exists within “Excitebots: Trick Racing,” which lifts the controls and methodology and inserts them into an entirely bizarre but blissfully fun racing experience starring giant, mechanized bugs and animals.

Like “Truck,” “Excitebots” asks you to hold the Wii remote sideways and tilt it like a steering wheel to control your bot’s steering. The setup isn’t particularly conducive to precision steering and hairpin turns, but it also doesn’t need to be. “Excitebots” prefers hilly straightaways to sharp corners, overtly encouraging players to drive recklessly and constantly ride the fast, fine line that separates edge-of-seat control from unwieldiness.

That strong embrace, combined with “Excitebots'” unique metrics for success — winning races is helpful, but racking up stars via dangerous driving and gravity-defying turbo jumping takes precedence over everything — make for a racing experience that’s wildly exciting and completely casual at once. Achieving gold medal scores is a worthy pursuit for skilled players, but anyone who can hold the Wii remote can enjoy “Excitebots” on some level.

The inclusion of mechanized turtles, ladybugs, bats and other creatures is the most overt symbol of distinction between “Excitebots” and “Trucks,” but it isn’t the only one. The off-road tracks wouldn’t look out of place in more traditional racing games, but Monster Games has littered them with ridiculous bonus contraptions ranging from stunt triggers to bowling pins to a constructible sandwich. Take advantage of these and other surprises littered around the track — including the cool landscape-altering triggers previously found in “Truck” — and you’ll have all the stars you need to unlock additional tracks and bots.

Annoyingly (and puzzlingly), you’ll also need a few good single-player runs to unlock the game’s multiplayer content. “Excitebots” includes splitscreen (two players) and online (six) play, but you’ll have to play through the first batch of single-player races to access it. Fortunately, it’s worth the small wait: “Excitebots” ranks right up with “Mario Kart” in terms of its online suite, and being able to bet accumulated stars on races is an amusing feature with obvious upside.

Finally, there’s the entirely unexplainable inclusion of the Poker Race mode, which tasks you with simultaneously winning the race while also forming the best poker hand using cards littered around the track. Why? Who knows. Who cares. Like everything else in “Excitebots,” Poker Race is there for your enjoyment more than your understanding, and it serves that purpose beautifully.


Rhythm Heaven
For: Nintendo DS/Nintendo DSi
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

If you’re rhythmically challenged and prone to bouts of impatience, you may as well stop reading now, because there will be nothing heavenly about “Rhythm Heaven.”

For those unfamiliar with the series’ previous success in Japan, “Heaven” is best described as a “WarioWare” game without Wario and with an acute emphasis on keeping the beat. Like “WarioWare,” “Heaven” is digitized madness — a few dozen or so mini-games, each with its own strange art and music styles and each with slightly different objectives built around a recurrent theme.

In the case of “Heaven,” that translates into a string of minute-long exercises centered around keeping a steady rhythm. The objectives range from pulling radishes to playing ping-pong to controlling a three-piece band of ghosts, but the crux of each challenge involves some combination of tapping, holding, and sliding the stylus across the touch screen in time with the music.

As anyone who has experienced “WarioWare” already knows, the combination of simple objectives and short-attention-span theatrics is a magnificently fun one in the right hands. “Heaven,” happily, channels most of what makes those games so appealing, and it’s almost immediately apparent that it’s a product of the same developers rather than a troubled knock-off.

Just don’t expect it to be as easy as those “WarioWare” games — or anything close, for that matter. “Heaven’s” control scheme starts and ends with the touch screen, and the touch screen simply isn’t as conducive to split-second timing as the buttons would be. Compound this with whatever troubles you might already have with the game’s rhythmic demands — “Heaven” regularly requires you to switch between sliding, holding and tapping at precise intervals — and the result can be disastrous if you can’t bring a certain level of concentration, practice, patience and rhythmic instinct to the table.

“Heaven” isn’t completely unforgiving, and you need not perfectly achieve an objective to pass it and unlock additional challenges. But those fooled by the cute graphics and expecting the usual “WarioWare” cakewalk will find themselves on the business end of a pretty rude awakening.

This, of course, should be music to the ears of player who miss the days of Nintendo knocking them upside the head with brutally challenging games. “Heaven” is surmountable for those willing to bring their “A” game, and the rewards — new mini-games, marathon versions of existing mini-games, a handful of fun digital toys, the simple satisfaction of conquering a legitimately tough game — are immense. The game lacks any kind of multiplayer option, but there’s more than enough single-player content here to justify a purchase for the right type of player.


Left 4 Dead Survival Pack
For: Xbox 360 and Windows
From: Valve
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Price: Free

PC gamers are used to Valve padding its games’ value with free content, but it’s a special day when console gamers get something for nothing. The “Left 4 Dead” Survival pack includes Versus mode versions of two campaigns, “Death Toll” and “Dead Air,” that previously only were playable in single-player or co-op form. But the reason for downloading — and the source of the pack’s name — is the new Survival mode, which tasks you with staying alive as long as possible while an ungodly number of zombies storm you in a confined space. Likely, that won’t be very long, because Survival mode sends special zombies at you in amounts the other modes wouldn’t dream of doing. But dying quickly and repeatedly makes for some exciting short play sessions that — thanks to the addictive nature of trying just one more time for a better score — add up to a lengthy, eventful good time with friends. Not bad for the price. The only nitpick: The mode, outside of a new map that takes place inside a lighthouse, uses the same locations you already visited elsewhere in the game. Also, if you prefer to play “L4D” by yourself, this pack offers nothing for you, as Survival mode supports online multiplayer only.