Games 11/29/06: Guitar Hero II, Tony Hawk's Project 8, Excite Truck, Genji: Days of the Blade, SingStar Rocks!

Guitar Hero II
For: Playstation 2 (coming to Xbox 360)
From: Harmonix/Red Octane/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen

Attention, Red Octane shoppers: Should you already own “Guitar Hero” and the awesome guitar controller that came with it, it’s possible to buy the sequel without being forced to buy a second controller.

That said, don’t do it. Mow a few more lawns and be a little nicer to people if you have to, but if you liked “Hero” at all, you’ll want to do whatever you need to do to round up the extra $30, make a friend and pick up “Guitar Hero II” with another guitar controller packed in.

Multiplayer in the original “Hero” was an expensive proposition: The unbundled guitar controller cost almost as much as another PS2 game, and the modes, while fun, were limited in scope. “GH2” makes multiplayer far more inviting and worthwhile by making it the centerpiece of its new feature set. The number of riff-off modes has increased, but you and a friend also can jam together for the greater good of rock in the new co-op mode. This, combined with handicapped difficulty settings and the ability to choose your favorite discipline (lead, rhythm or bass), makes it easier than ever to delude yourself into thinking you’re on stage in a band instead of in your parents’ basement playing video games. (Should your friends be a bit guitar-shy, a new and very welcome practice mode allows newbies to learn the basics in a pressure-free setting.)

Beyond the aforementioned additions, “GH2” plays like a bigger, badder version of its predecessor, with more songs (Kiss, Rage Against the Machine, Guns N’ Roses, Skynyrd, Buckethead and more than 60 more), venues, characters and eye candy. The guitar controller — a not-quite-life-sized beast that includes five chord buttons, a strum bar and a killer whammy bar — hasn’t changed in terms of functionality. But it comes in a cool shade of blood red to compliment the black model from last year’s game. You can’t very well rock the (parents’) house with matching shredders, now can you?


Tony Hawk’s Project 8
For: Xbox 360 (best), PS3, PS2, PSP and Xbox
From: Neversoft/Activision

Contrary to rumors — and perhaps to the dismay of some — “Tony Hawk’s Project 8” does not mark a return to the dead-serious “Hawk” games of old.

Neversoft’s positioning of “P8” as a soup-to-nuts rebuild of its series and its reprioritizing of skating over mischief — last seen arguably four games ago — may suggest that. But any game with a suite of objectives centered on a giant beaver mascot and his R/C car can’t be all that serious. Nor can a game that allows you not only to manually bail mid-trick, but control (for the first time) the flight and impact of your bail in order to (another first) rack up as impressive a hospital bill as possible.

The hospital bill feature takes the edge off what is a slightly but noticeably more challenging game. “P8” is still forgiving when it comes to landing inhuman tricks — particularly as your created skater’s attributes grow — but some overdue tweaks definitely have been made. It’s hard to describe these tweaks in words, but you’ll notice their presence the first time a landing you take for granted results in your face smacking one of the many sidewalks, streets or foreign objects in “P8’s” open-ended city and surrounding area. (That’s somewhat new too, as are the inspired “beat this record!” tag challenges splattered about said sidewalks and streets.)

Activision has put its marketing weight behind “P8’s” new Nail the Trick feature, and with good reason. Whereas most of the game’s movements emphasize the relationship between your board and the ground, Nail the Trick — which, when activated, slows down the action and zooms in on your feet — spotlights the relationship between your feet and the board. The left stick controls your left foot, the right controls your right, and tricks we’ve taken for granted for seven straight games — kick flips, pop shove its — suddenly become considerably more challenging and valuable, not to mention a ton more fun to execute.

No version of “P8” is a bad egg, but those with a choice are best off with the Xbox 360 version, which features graphics on par with the PS3 edition but a suite of online multiplayer options not found there. Save for some slowdown, the game looks noticeably better on next-gen systems than last year’s “Hawk” port on 360.


Excite Truck
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo

Your enjoyment of “Excite Truck” is directly and completely proportional to how soon and how well you master the ability to turbo jump. Simple as that.

It’s not that “Truck” isn’t fun without the turbo jump — it is. But the Wii’s main selling point is its ability to let us play games in strange new ways, and anyone who has purchased a driving wheel in the last 10 years (or has ever been to an arcade) has more or less experienced what “Truck’s” steering controls bring to the table. If only in this one genre, the Wii is old hat.

So it falls on “Truck” to impress in other ways. Happily, it rises to the challenge. The game is fast from bell to bell, and the tracks are loaded with deep dives, shortcuts and triggers that dynamically alter the landscape in ways that help and harm you and your adversaries. The star scoring system rewards daredevils as well as speedsters: Winning races nets you a ton of stars, but so does catching big air, wrecking opposing trucks and driving through a forest full of fender-bending trees, to name some examples.

But it’s the turbo jump — the process of applying turbo right as your truck takes to the air — that makes it all come together. Mastering the timing behind this technique will take practice, but once you get it, “Truck” goes from a seven on the fast scale to roughly a 20. Perfect your technique and string jumps together, and it’s hard not to be hooked.

Nintendo’s online strategy has been caught with its pants down at launch, so “Truck” features split-screen multiplayer for two players only. That, and a somewhat low variety of races and special challenges — ring-jumping, a slalom-like gate challenge and a demolition-derby-style manhunt — will leave mode-aholics a bit unimpressed. This doesn’t necessarily hinder the replay value, though: Like “Mario Kart” and “Wave Race” before it, “Truck” makes the most of what it does have, and there’s very little here that doesn’t command a return visit (and several more after that).


Genji: Days of the Blade
For: Playstation 3
From: Game Republic/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen

Once upon a time, it was cool to be a fixed-camera game. True 3D at a respectably high resolution wasn’t possible on the original Playstation, and going the faux-3D route for the sake of prettier graphics wasn’t a particularly bad style choice, especially with so many developers struggling to master true camera controls in the first place.

For whatever reason, “Genji: Days of the Blade” looks at that period as the good old days. The PS3 is more than capable of delivering a beautiful game in all three dimensions, and “Blade” itself is proof — a high-resolution whirlwind of color, special effects, and rich detail infusing every battle, be it in the Japanese countryside, at sea or somewhere in between. Unfortunately, you can see only what the game allows you to see. “Blade” features the same rigid third-person perspective one comes to expect from a typical full-3D game, but the ability to control that perspective is nowhere to be found.

This is more than a graphical problem — it’s a gameplay problem as well. “Blade,” being your standard hack/slash game, sends enemies after you from every direction, and trying to fight screen-sized soldiers whom you can’t see but know are behind you (or worse, in front of you) makes for an uncomfortably (and unnecessarily) claustrophobic experience. Why Game Republic didn’t throw in even rudimentary camera control boggles the mind. Something as simple as a button to rotate the viewpoint 180 degrees would’ve done wonders.

This, of course, was one of the main problems facing last year’s PS2 “Genji” game. If you got past it the first time around, you likely will be able to do so again here, and you’ll be rewarded with a much longer storyline, more and better weapons and moves (including a flashier return of the mini-game-esque Kamui special powers), and two new playable characters to complement the returning Yoshitsune and Benkei. Just don’t expect anything more than that: It may be playing on new hardware, but it’s the same old “Genji,” for better or worse.


SingStar Rocks!
For: Playstation 2
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

Sony has a deal for you: Embarrass yourself in front of others, get a free microphone.

Unlike every karaoke game that preceded it — in other words, the four iterations of “Karaoke Revolution” — “SingStar Rocks!” stomps the notion of passing the mic by including two USB microphones in one $50 package and practically bribing would-be glass-breakers to duet, have a sing-off and even participate in team-based challenges. Soloists can hone their craft by their only, but “Rocks!” takes the ball and runs with the notion that karaoke is rarely a solo affair.

The “SingStar” series has been a hit in Europe for a couple of years and four versions of its own, so “Rocks!” isn’t exactly a rookie effort despite its rookie status in America. The game’s voice- and note-recognition technology is serviceable, and the clean, minimalist layout is a time-tested means of attracting new players and non-gamers with as little fuss as possible.

Still, “Revolution” vets be warned: “Rocks!” isn’t quite as generous in terms of letting flat notes by, and there’s no satisfactory means of letting you know how best to adjust your pitch and tempo. This and the lack of a satisfying tutorial/practice mode means you’re left to figure this one out on your own — not a big deal if you’re goofing off with friends, but potentially aggravating if you’re discovering this one alone.

Other “rookie” mistakes? The 30-song lineup (including Thin Lizzy, Marvin Gaye, The Killers, Joss Stone and The Rolling Stones) is more authentic than “Revolution’s” sound-alike songs, but it’s also considerably smaller in size. And in a bizarre karaoke no-no, there’s no option to mute the original singers and sing along to just the backing music.

Still, even that last oversight can’t curb what is one of the PS2’s better multiplayer train wrecks-in-waiting. Karaoke in any quantity is an easy crowd-pleaser, but turning it into a group activity takes the fun (and trauma) to cool new heights. “Revolution” remains the better game overall with its larger lineup and variety of modes, but casual party gamers in search of an affordably-priced party-in-a-box will find plenty to enjoy here.

Games 11/01/06: Final Fantasy XII, Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Family Guy: Video Game!

Final Fantasy XII
For: Playstation 2
From: Square Enix

“Final Fantasy” has accumulated quite a few laurels over the last 16-plus years, but no one ever seems content to rest on them. With every sequel — spin-offs notwithstanding — Square introduces both a brand-new universe of characters and a heavily retooled means of carrying this universe’s story to its conclusion.

This inability to sit still has never been more apparent than it is in “Final Fantasy XII,” which forgoes retooling in favor of ripping the wires from the wall. Those menu-driven, turn-based battles that have been a franchise staple since day one? Send them a postcard, because they’re gone, replaced by a mixture of turn-based and real-time action that fans of massively multiplayer online games may recognize. “FFXII” also marks an end to the era of random encounters: Would-be enemies move in plain sight, and the transition from faux-3D to the real deal (complete with manual camera controls, another first) means you can engage and avoid as needed.

The changes are welcome to the point of overdue, and they really shine once you’ve assembled a party. Managing up to four characters in real time is exciting and challenging during big battles, and the ability to script actions beforehand and modify them on the fly means you can summon your inner general as well as soldier. The slick new licensing board — similar to but more flexible than “FFX’s” sphere grid — allows you to upgrade characters with whatever specialties best suit your style, be it strength in combat, magic, healing or pieces of everything.

“FFXII’s” story marks another bold step: The usual “unassuming hero saves world” retread has mostly been shelved in favor of a modern tale of power, politics and the status quo. Everything still starts and ends with a select set of main characters, but the incredibly pretty world in which they live plays a far more integral role, and the story is richer for it. Expect to sink anywhere from 40-100 hours into this monster before it ends, followed by who knows how many months of uneasy anticipation for whatever bold stroke Square Enix paints next.


Splinter Cell: Double Agent
For: Xbox 360 (altered versions available for PS2, Xbox, Gamecube)
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Mature

Impatient gamers have been taunted year after year by Ubisoft’s “Splinter Cell” games, which reward players for staying under the enemy’s radar rather than going in with guns blazing. The level of care required to excel at “Cell” is unacceptably high for overeager types, but the polish and production values these games receive make it extremely difficult to pretend they don’t exist.

Longtime fans may feel otherwise, but for the fence-sitters, “Double Agent” represents Ubi’s most tempting dangle job yet. The story is better developed than before, with government agent and perennial good guy Sam Fisher playing for the other side for the first time. Carrying out this story also requires less patience than ever: You still need to exercise good stealth etiquette to excel on the game’s higher difficulty settings, but you can afford to be considerably more reckless on the easy difficulty. (You also can save anywhere, all but eliminating excessive backtracking should you fail a mission.)

These same selling points may not please “Cell” fanatics, some of whom undoubtedly would love another game as pure and strict about stealth as the series’ first. Similarly, “Agent’s” online multiplayer components, while fun and faster paced than ever, will feel dumbed down to those reared on the more intricate modes from the previous two games. The game also looks only marginally better than “Chaos Theory” looked on the Xbox, which makes the occasional framerate dive hard to stomach.

But a disappointing “Splinter Cell” game is still better than most franchises’ best, and “Agent” proves it. Level designs are top-notch, Sam is as fun to control as ever, and a good story idea serves and is served by good game design. (Case in point: The new trust meter, which provides an easy way to keep tabs on your influence with good and bad guys, both of whom you’re simultaneously serving and fighting.) Problems everyone can agree on do arise — namely the inconsistent A.I. of games past and an uncomfortably close camera, to add to the list assembled above. But the good very easily outweighs the bad, regardless of if this is your first “Cell” game or your fourth.


Family Guy: Video Game!
For: Xbox, Playstation 2 and PSP
From: High Voltage/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature

“The Simpsons Hit & Run” wrote the book on how to turn a (once)-hilarious Sunday night cartoon into a video game that’s as fun as it is funny. If the first few levels of “Family Guy” are any indication, it’s a book High Voltage and 2K Games can recite from memory.

As a piece of fan service, “FG” does everything right. The show’s cast and crew lent their talents, and the result is an extremely funny lost episode that mixes in new material while tossing in just about every inside joke or side character the series has ever trotted out. The show’s barrage of non-sequiturs are cleverly presented in the form of equally out-of-left-field mini-games. “FG” even does “Hit & Run” one better by incorporating cel-shaded 3D graphics instead of plain old polygons.

“FG” drops you into the shoes of three characters: Stewie, Peter and Brian. Stewie’s levels — a handful of which open the game — are the highlight, mixing platforming, item collection and ray gun shooting in derivative but mindlessly fun ways.

You’re waiting for the bad news, right? Well, here it is. Brian’s levels are all about stealth — creep around this and that corner and don’t let yourself be seen. Unfortunately, what constitutes as “being seen” is so arbitrary, you’ll spend half these levels guessing and the other half shooting steam out of your ears because you guessed wrong and have to start the level over. This, also, is where the game’s humor works against it: Lines that were funny the first time are blood-curdling the fifth time around.

Peter’s “Final Fight”-style levels are a relief by comparison, but they don’t feel nearly as developed as Stewie’s portion. Certain characters are randomly impervious to certain attacks, but that and a few obligatory combos are as deep as the action gets. Just mash, move right and repeat. Once you acquire a special move or two, you can sleepwalk though these levels. Take advantage — your nerves could use the rest before the next Brian level rolls around. If you want to see this episode to its conclusion, you have your work cut out for you.

Games 10/25/06: God Hand, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07, Nintendogs: Dalmatian & Friends, Lumines Live!

God Hand
For: Playstation 2
From: Clover Studio/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature

Awesomely terrible or terribly awesome? That is the question surrounding “God Hand,” arguably the most polarizing game to arrive in 2006. The “love it or hate it” superlative is abused to the point of irrelevance, but Clover’s bizarre brawler is the real deal.

Why might you hate “Hand?” For starters, the production values are a mess: The story makes no sense, the visuals are sloppy and incoherent, the animation is stiff, and the voice acting is deliberately horrendous. The control scheme borrows from the Nintendo 64 days, with tank-like controls and no means to maneuver the camera, which is way too close to your character’s back as is. That’s not exactly an ideal scenario for an already-challenging brawler that likes to send enemies your way from every direction.

So with all that going against it, what’s to love? How about the positively enormous roster of unlockable moves that include everything from standard blows (uppercuts, roundhouse kicks) to special attacks (shockwaves, missile kicks) to slapstick (making like Roger Clemens and plunking someone with a baseball)? You can customize your arsenal to suit your fighting preferences, and you can even hit the local casino to quickly raise funds toward purchasing more moves. (As a fun aside, see what happens when you deliver a cheap shot to a fellow gambler).

Additionally, depending on who you are, “Hand’s” flaws may work as perks. Those who can adjust to the strange controls will discover a level of depth not remotely expressed in the game’s awkward opening battles. One-on-one fights, in particular, are fantastically fun. Similarly, those with a strange sense of humor may appreciate “Hand’s” bizarre mishmash of inanity, which clearly was no accident.

Ultimately, you’ll have to try this one yourself. Criticism and praise for “Hand” has touched both ends of the spectrum, with critics in one camp condemning the game as garbage while others anoint it as the best PS2 game of the year. Where you stand is up to you, but one thing’s for sure: You’ve never played anything quite like it. Given Clover’s perilous commercial record, you’re not likely to ever again, either.


Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07
For: Xbox 360, Xbox, Playstation 2 and PSP (coming November to Playstation 3)
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Here’s hoping you brought your appetite: EA Sports is serving Tiger a la carte this year, and you have a poison to pick.

Do you want lots of courses? The Xbox or PS2 version of “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07” might be for you. Each boasts a total of 21 real and fantastical courses, nearly twice as many as the Xbox 360 version’s dozen. Then again, the courses you do get are prettier and more immersive on the 360 than what’s possible on the older hardware. That goes as well for the pros (15 on the 360, 21 on Xbox/PS2): You get less of them, but they outclass their old-hardware counterparts in terms of looks and animation.

It gets trickier. The 360 version sports nearly two dozen modes, including the essentials (tour, training challenges, skins, match play, player creator), some new stuff (a full-featured practice facility, the deservedly-hyped team tour) and a healthy smattering of arcade- and mini-game modes that can be enjoyed solo, with friends or online. The PS2/Xbox versions sport the new team tour mode, but a good chunk of the fun side games are exclusive to the 360.

The PSP version has its own exclusive suite of fast-paced mini-games as well, but no team tour and only slimmed-down versions of the other essentials. Then again, this is the only version that allows you to save a game in progress. Never mind that it’s also portable and allows you to play online from wherever you can find a hotspot. Just be prepared for a lessened degree of control: The PSP’s analog nub is no substitute for any of the aforementioned systems’ controllers.

So you can’t have it all. Fortunately, if you’re a fan of the series, you can’t go terribly wrong, either. “TW07” is fundamentally identical to its predecessors: The analog swing and putt controls still provide the most intuitive game of video golf around, and the optional new preflight adjustments (including shot targeting and power boosting) offer additional accessibility for players who miss the days of meters and three-click gameplay. That, plus whatever features you decide are most important to you, make “TW07” second only to itself as the market’s most comprehensive golf simulation.


Nintendogs: Dalmatian & Friends
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

As if it knew ahead of time that “Nintendogs” would be a massive international sensation, Nintendo hid the Dalmatian breed inside all four versions of the game and kept that bit of information on the down low. The unlockable Dalmatian was awarded to players as a treat for being studious, dependable virtual dog owners, but chances are good many “Nintendogs” owners to this day have yet to, ahem, spot one. (Sorry.)

Enter “Nintendogs: Dalmatian & Friends.” “Dalmatian” plays exactly the same as the previously-released quartet of “Nintendogs” games, but this time the Dalmatian is both on the cover for all to see and available for adoption right from the start. A “greatest hits” collection of previously-advertised breeds — Boxer, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Yorkie and Beagle — also is immediately available for perusal. Beyond that and the dogs’ ability to understand French and Spanish as well as English voice commands, the game hasn’t changed at all.

Nintendo, to its great credit, makes it clear on the back of the box that all 19 breeds ultimately are available in each of the game’s five flavors. Any accusations of unfair franchise milking at fans’ expense pretty much end there. Then again, Nintendo also slaps a “Limited Edition” badge on the front of the box, almost certainly ensuring a healthy level of interest from collectors, fanatics and the ebay crowd.

Ultimately, though, “Dalmatian” simply offers an additional option for the bazillions of people who have purchased a DS since “Nintendogs” originally released last year and set fire to the system’s buzz. If you already have a copy and have no desire to praise your dog in Spanish, you probably have no need for “Dalmatian.” Don’t feel bad for the puppy on the cover, though; there are many thousands of folks ready to adopt him or her in your place.


Lumines Live!
For: Xbox 360 Arcade
From: Q Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

“Lumines” was one of the best games to launch alongside the Playstation Portable last year, and the block-puzzle-slash-rhythm sensation remains one of its best games more than 19 months later. Considering how accessible and addictive the “Lumines” formula remains, its migration to the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade is a match made in downloadable heaven.

Or so it would seem, until you realize “Lumines Live!” marks the latest slap in the new and entirely unwelcome era of video game microtransactions.

Like any other Live Arcade game, “LL!” offers a free trial version and a not-so-free full version (priced in this case at 1200 Microsoft points, or $15). Unfortunately, the full version (as it’s labeled) isn’t full. For your 1200 points, you get the challenge/marathon, puzzle, mission, versus and multiplayer modes. But the puzzle and mission modes consist of only five levels each, while the versus mode includes only one (yes, one) level.

Want more than that? Pony up: Additional versus levels will set you back more points, and you’ll pay yet more for an acceptable amount of missions and puzzles. The included 12 skins pale in comparison to the PSP version of “Lumines,” and you’ll have to pay extra for more of those as well.

This bit of news would be less aggravating if all this extra content was accessible in a single bonus pack that was available now. But assembling the real full version of “LL!” requires four separate downloads (five if you want the much-publicized music video skins), and three of these won’t be available until next year. Worse, none of this is explained up front, though Q is kind enough to spill the beans once you’ve parted with those first 1200 points.

Major ill will aside, “Lumines” still plays like it should, and the Xbox Live action is fun and free of nasty sneak attacks on your wallet. But if online play isn’t a concern and you have a PSP, you’ll be far better served by the forthcoming “Lumines II.” It costs only twice as much as “LL!’s” broken initial download, but it offers considerably more content than all five downloads put together. You also get the entire game at one time. What a concept.

Games 10/18/06: Killzone: Liberation, Mercury Meltdown, Clubhouse Games

Killzone: Liberation
For: PSP
From: Guerilla Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen

Problem: You made a first-person shooter named “Killzone” on the Playstation 2. People really liked it. You want to make more “Killzones” on more systems. But your next destination, the PSP, handles first-person games about as well as the Washington Generals handle the Harlem Globetrotters.

Solution? Make a “Killzone” game — but don’t make an FPS.

Result? Awesome. Give Guerilla Games a round of applause: It knew better than to pretend, as many developers have, that what’s good for the PS2 automatically is good for the PSP. And in not playing dumb or assuming we were, it crafted one of the best games of its kind ever made.

Oh sure, the song remains the same: You’re still fighting the Helghast army, and your methods — guns, grenades, tanks and turrets — haven’t changed. But in “Killzone: Liberation,” the camera’s zoomed way out, and the action now takes place in an overhead fashion — think “Commando,” “Ikari Warriors” or the top-down levels in “Contra,” only with 3D animation, more complex level designs and other modern-day bells and whistles you expect from a shooter in 2006.

Other 3D games have attempted this in the past — “Max Payne” and “Rainbow Six” on the Game Boy Advance are two shining examples — but this is the most magnificent reinvention yet. Everything that was fun about “Killzone” is fun again in “Liberation.” The firefights are both intense and cerebral, mixing duck-and-cover strategy with guns-blazing blowouts. Vehicles are surprisingly fun to control and are implemented perfectly, as are squad controls and escort missions that actually don’t stink. The game is tough as nails to beat, but the excellent checkpoint system always keeps victory within reach.

The soldier you control could be a little zippier, but beyond that, the new approach never holds this one back. In fact, “Liberation” is such a fresh mix of old- and new-school gameplay, “Killzone” fans just might be tripping over themselves to play it. Portable renditions of console games need not be crippled or dumbed down to be faithful, and Guerilla’s stroke of brilliance stands as proof.


Mercury Meltdown
For: PSP
From: Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone

“Mercury” had its place in the launch of the PSP last year. The PSP needed puzzle games — every portable system does. And “Mercury” — which plays like “Marble Madness” and “Super Monkey Ball,” but with much cooler physics — was a good game with good timing.

That said, “Mercury Meltdown” is the real deal, a soup-to-nuts improvement in terms of gameplay, design and everything in between. Name a flaw in “Mercury,” and chances are good “Meltdown” has addressed and stamped it out.

First and most importantly, the frustration has been toned down. “Meltdown’s” difficulty progression is far more gradual, offering less lobotomy-friendly levels at the very start and less ridiculously difficult ones shortly after. And because the more than 160 new levels now come in packs of 16 instead of one after the other, you can put a difficult level aside when it’s driving you nuts and simply try another one. Finally, remember the timer? It’s still there — but if time expires, you merely take a penalty in your pursuit of the high score instead of start the level over. In other words, Ignition wants you to play “Meltdown” in whatever manner best fits you.

“Meltdown” also looks like a new game, replacing “Mercury’s” generic visual style with an explosion of color and personality that seeps into the levels, menus and even load screens. The load times are way down, and Ignition takes advantage of everything from wireless multiplayer to downloadable content and game sharing. The new party games — which themselves have multiple levels — are clever new twists on the gameplay formula. And it almost goes without saying at this point that the levels feature a new slew of traps and gadgets to compliment the inventive batch from the last game. Everything else has been improved, and you can bet that piece of the puzzle has been as well.


Clubhouse Games
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

You say you want a new game for that there Nintendo DS? Well heck, how about 42 of them? That’s what you get with “Clubhouse Games,” an everything-to-everyone compilation that’s such a no-brainer, it’s a wonder it took two years and Nintendo itself to deliver it.

As implied by the name, “CG” is an array of games you might play at a clubhouse, including card games (everything from Memory to blackjack to poker), table games (checkers/chess, board game knockoffs, dominoes) and other casual standards (darts, bowling, billiards). The “42 games” pitch is pretty honest, too: You don’t, for instance, get 35 variations of Solitaire and seven other games. Between the game selections and the various ways to play them — including an Xbox 360 achievements-like mission mode — “CG” isn’t hurting for variety.

That’s not to say every game is a winner. While “CG” gives you a lot to chew on, you’re asking too much if you expect each game to be the definitive version of its sort. The Texas Hold ’em game, for instance, doesn’t even allow you to choose the size of your bet. And the billiards game is … well, it’s bad.

But for every disappointment, there are plenty of games that are both faithful and executed well. And while “CG” features lots of usual suspects, Nintendo has included a surprising number of inspired picks, including Spit, the shuffleboard-like Takeover, the Jenga-esque Balance and I Doubt It!, which is a G-rated but otherwise faithful interpretation of a certain anatomically-named card classic. That little bombshell is enough to make up for the baffling omission of air hockey (which we can only assume was saved for the sequel, because no other explanation suffices).

Nintendo’s online savvy seems to improve with each effort, and “CG” is no exception, featuring an integrated PictoChat that’s always accessible but never intrusive. Online play is available for each game, as is wireless multiplayer (eight players, one card). The adjustable difficulty makes “CG” fun to play alone, but few games scream “find some buddies” quite like this one does.

Games 10/11/06: Just Cause, The Fast and the Furious, Bounty Hounds

Just Cause
For: Xbox 360
From: Avalanche/Eidos
ESRB Rating: Mature

Does “Just Cause” have problems? If you’re a stickler for realism, boy does it ever. Any game that lets you scale the side of a mountain by literally running up and along it isn’t what you’d call a work of realism.

Same goes for the ability to, oh, jump off the mountain, deploy your parachute, fire a grappling hook at a passing car, paraglide behind the car, leap onto a passing plane, kick the pilot out, fly the plane, shoot down a police chopper, leap out of the plane, somehow deploy your chute again, and land at the site of your next mission while the plane crash-lands in the distance.

The preceding stunt — or several million variations of it — is entirely possible in “Cause,” which takes the open-ended gameplay of “Grand Theft Auto,” mixes in the worldly sensibilities of “Mercenaries,” and piles a huge helping of Hollywood blockbuster on top. Where games might pull off similar stunts through scripted events and other contrivances, the insanity one commits in “Cause” is entirely organic, limited only by imagination and a need to stay alive.

The explosive possibilities — and what you’ve read only scratches the surface — are made all the more impressive by “Cause’s” incredible visual and technical prowess. The fictional tropical island of San Esperito is 250,000 acres of wow, boasting expansive highways, skyscraping mountains, shanty and resort towns and a numerous bodies of water (full ocean floor included). Gorgeous lighting and weather effects deepen the immersion factor, and the almost complete lack of load times really hammers home just what developers can do with this new generation of hardware.

“Cause” is sprinkled with nagging issues that actually are problems, including some unpredictable car physics, a map that sometimes deceives you at the worst possible time, a degree of sameness to some environments and some rudimentary artificial intelligence. Fortunately, these problems rarely add up to anything debilitating, and they’re pretty small potatoes in a game that lets you do heaven knows how many things no game has ever before let you do. Suspend your disbelief, think on or off your feet, and enjoy the ride — be it by land, sea, air or all of the above.


The Fast and the Furious
For: Playstation 2
From: GoBig!/Bandai Namco
ESRB Rating: Teen

Wow, talk about showing up a little late to the party.

“The Fast and the Furious” was a movie screaming for a game tie-in back in 2001, when street racing games were still a novelty and the film’s popularity was at its peak.

Yet here we are, three films and five years later, with the PS3 looming and street racers a dime a gross on pretty much every gaming medium down to and including mobile phones. “Furious” has arrived, but its tardiness guarantees casual observers will dismiss it as an also-ran based on a has-been. Perceptions aren’t helped by the game’s almost superficial ties to the films: The Tokyo setting from the third movie plays the part of host, but the not-quite storyline features none of the main characters and functions more as glue than anything else.

Let’s be honest, though — the only good thing about the films was the racing. And purely as a racing game, “Furious” is much better than a mere also-ran — a little too similar to its contemporaries, for sure, but no slouch in their presence and just different enough to justify its existence.

For starters, the game is fast: The sense of speed on the asphalt is terrific despite a slightly jumpy framerate, some grainy visuals and other indications of the PS2’s limited power.

More importantly, though, the cars — which are licensed and extremely customizable — handle nicely even in the lowest class. The sense of power and weight, combined with awesome drift controls and the aforementioned speed, mean you won’t have to wait until you can purchase faster cars to enjoy the game like it’s meant to be enjoyed.

The attention to control becomes especially apparent during mountain drift races, which have you peeling around a peak in a frantic tug-o-war between speed and control. “Furious” is fun on the streets, but you’ve likely been there and done that in other games. If your street racing thirst still burns and you want to try something truly different, head for the mountains ASAP.


Bounty Hounds
For: PSP
From: XPEC/Bandai Namco
ESRB Rating: Teen

Part of being a gamer is wondering how a sprawling team of developers, publishers and game testers managed for months to overlook a problem (and solution) you’re able to spot almost immediately.

Take, for instance, “Bounty Hounds.” Here’s a game that, while never spectacular, has a lot going for it. It’s a new franchise made specially for the PSP, and the pick-up-and-go gameplay — your typical mindless hack/slash romp, albeit with a futuristic motif and shooting weapons tossed in for variety’s sake — is an ideal fit for the portable. The graphic novel-like story is pretty slick, and the action is fast, pretty and full of enemies crawling out of every nook.

“Hounds” allows you to use either the directional pad or the analog stick — but not both — to control your character. It would stand to reason, then, that if you use the D-pad to move your guy, the stick would be used to control the camera and vice versa.

Unfortunately, while games have been doing just that for some 10 years now, “Hounds” does not. In fact, beyond being able to center the camera behind your character or on a targeted enemy, you have no control whatsoever over the camera. This is no trivial matter with enemies surrounding you almost constantly, and the problem is compounded by a fidgety auto-targeting system and the fact that the default camera angle almost always is inadequate in the first place. You’ll spend as much time running in circles to fight this problem as you will fighting actual enemies.

It’s about as fun in practice as it sounds on paper, and XPEC’s inability to map even bare-bones camera controls to either the D-pad or the stick is a pretty staggering oversight given all the things it does right. Those with great patience can probably get around it, but only someone desperate for a game of this ilk should even make the attempt.

Games 9/27/06: Okami, Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis, Test Drive Unlimited, Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime, Bomberman PSP

For: Playstation 2
From: Clover Studio/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen

You know that sound a politician makes when he promises to reform government and lower your taxes? That same hollow thunk is what you can expect to hear from hundreds of games that proclaim, “You’ve never seen anything like this!” only to arrive months later looking exactly like [insert previously released game here] with [insert slight improvement here].

“Okami” isn’t exactly guilt-free in this regard. To say it models its structure, gameplay and storytelling approach after Nintendo’s more recent “Legend of Zelda” games is something of a kind understatement.

But unless you’ve ever witnessed a watercolor painting come to life, enter the third dimension and move at the mercy of your two hands, you truly have never seen anything like “Okami” before. Clover Studio’s art direction is so stunningly original and expertly executed, all charges of me-too-ism would be forgiven had “Okami” merely aspired to be a “Zelda” copycat in gorgeous clothing.

Fortunately, that’s not the case. Whereas Link employs a cornucopia of gadgets to save the day, our hero in “Okami” — a wolf with a better backstory than perhaps any wolf ever — wields a paintbrush. A button press transforms the world before you into a canvas, and from here you’re free to alter it as needed to move forward. Paint a sun to light up the sky, swipe a straight line to cut down trees, fill in a path to reach points B, C and D. Maybe sketch out a bomb for when all else fails. The brush comes into play during combat as well, with some memorably original boss fights ensuing as result.

If this sounds gimmicky to you, guess what? During the first hour, as Clover lobs remedial kindergarten-grade challenges at you, it is. But once practice ends and your range of abilities increases, novelty gives way to integration. And if there’s anything more impressive about “Okami” than its art direction, it’s how Clover takes a should-be gimmick and brilliantly employs it as the heartbeat of an adventure that’s every bit as satisfying as Link’s best. Who needs a shiny new Playstation 3 when the arguable game of the year is playing right now on the rickety old PS2?


Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Poor Mario. Every time he tries to do anything — meet a girl, take a trip, start a business — there’s someone ready to bring him down. In the case of “Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2,” Donkey Kong not only has crashed the opening of Mario’s new theme park, he’s also kidnapped Pauline — Mario’s first flame from way back in the day — yet again.

How’s this for jaded, though: Instead of performing his usual rescue job, Mario has taken the wind-up Mario toys he saved in the first “Mario vs. Donkey Kong” game, ordered them to do his dirty work, and slipped out the back door to catch the end of the ballgame at home.

As implied by Mario’s absence, “March of the Minis” is a different game than its predecessor. Whereas that game was mostly a platformer with a passing resemblance to the classic “Lemmings,” this one is a full-blown, touch screen-powered “Lemmings” homage with Mushroom Kingdom parts. You have some control over the toys, but it’s limited. And as they march through and around a gauntlet of pipes, pits, spikes, piranha plants, toy Donkey Kongs and more, you’ll need to tinker with the levels themselves as much as the little Marios to keep them away from peril.

It’s a simple concept. But as the levels grow more intricate, you’ll need to be quick of mind and hand in order to keep the Marios on point. Escorting a single Mario to the goal is all that’s needed to unlock the next stage in “Minis,” but players who want enjoy the game for all its worth will aspire not only to march all of them to the exit, but earn top ratings and unlockable minigames while doing so. You get out of “Minis” what you put into it, and saving Pauline is only half the point.

Should you prefer to flex your creative rather than multitasking skills, “Minis” includes a fun, intuitive level editor. Up to eight creations can be saved at a time, and you can trade levels with friends (wirelessly or online) to keep the fun from ever running dry.


Test Drive Unlimited
For: Xbox 360
From: Atari
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+

The onslaught of open-world racing games — where you’re free to just cruise around to your liking and rack up any number of moving violations between races and missions — is a blessing with one critical flaw. Driving around and unleashing vehicular mayhem in a virtual world is a stupidly fun time sink, but it’s not quite the same when you’re terrorizing computer-controlled traffic instead of other maniacal drivers.

“Test Drive Unlimited” does away with this problem like a Maserati crashing into a Yield sign, offering not only a real virtual world — Oahu, Hawaii — but one populated with real drivers whom you’re free to ignore, challenge or rear-end incessantly until your stress melts away.

“TDU” merges its single- and multiplayer modes into one seamless, gigantic island o’ fun, and you’re free to engage in solo events, multiplayer challenges and other diversions (car/motorcycle shopping, taxi missions, house hunting) on the fly. “TDU” doesn’t really offer an endgame beyond winning events, buying nicer vehicles and just having a good time cruising the island (which, besides some pop-up issues here and there, is gorgeous and rich with detail). Log on, have some fun, log off. It’s a fantastic example of old-school sensibility enhanced by first-rate technology.

Gameplay-wise, “TDU” shares much in common with “Need for Speed: Most Wanted,” sharing strong parallels in terms of visual style, car physics and mission layout. As with that game, you’ll also contend with cops and heavy traffic during and between races. Veterans of “Wanted” also will take quickly to the driving controls here. Just be prepared to pay some dues: The Class F vehicles handle pretty atrociously. (Things improve dramatically with a Class E vehicle, so sit tight.)

Presumably to beef up its online community, Atari has priced “TDU” to move — $40, to be precise, compared to the usual $60. This, however, is not your typical budget-minded game: There’s a ridiculous amount to do here, and Atari has designed a beautiful, forward-thinking beast of a game in which to do it. Expect parts of this game to provide inspiration for more than a few racing games in 2007 and beyond.


Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
For: Nintendo DS
From: Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Everyone

You may not know word one about “Dragon Quest,” but you’ve probably encountered one of the many toys, plush dolls and keychains modeled after the blue glob of slime that has become the unlikely face of the franchise. Fifty-hour role-playing epics aren’t for everyone, but a dollop of goo with a cheerful smile on its face? Who doesn’t love that?

The lowly slime finally get their day in “Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime,” and what a strange day it is. For the first hour or so, “Slime” consists simply of walking around, collecting items with seemingly no purpose, and stretching and launching yourself, Stretch Armstrong-slash-slingshot style, into evil cats and birds in order to advance the story. It’s fun for a while, but it’s not long before you wonder if this is all there is.

It’s at that exact moment the game puts your fears at ease. Those apples you collected? They aren’t food, but fodder for a gigantic tank you can summon from thin air (from thin air!). Same with the bombs, obelisks, arrows, rocks and more. The tank battles in “Slime” mark the climactic points in the story, and with good reason: They’re strategic, exciting and humorously creative. You can stock your tank with whatever combination of fodder works best with your fighting style, and pretty much anything that isn’t bolted down — including yourself and your tankmates — can be thrown into the canon and launched at the enemy.

The tank battles are available as a multiplayer option as well: Between four and 16 players can participate, depending on your configuration. That’s good news, too, because “Slime’s” single-player modes aren’t intent on challenging so much as entertaining you. The story is bursting with bizarre humor and so-bad-they’re-good puns, and players who fancy an easygoing exploration- and puzzle-fest will find hours of enjoyment inside. But if there’s one word that will never describe “Slime,” it’s “perilous.” Should you manage to find a way to let the cats and birds get the best of you, you simply aren’t trying.


For: PSP
From: Hudson/Konami

Proclaiming, “Bomberman’s back!” doesn’t really carry a lot of thunder when you consider the most recent “Bomberman” game came out … oh, about three weeks ago. But when a game as unrecognizably awful as “Bomberman: Act: Zero” lands with the thud it did, the arrival of the plain-titled but fundamentally divine “Bomberman” on PSP is, indeed, cause for such a proclamation.

The best news about this “Bomberman?” No news at all. The age-old gameplay has aged spectacularly compared to most arcade games from the 1980s. That same gameplay shows up in fine form on the PSP, gifted with a clean, colorful look and graphics that take advantage of the system’s 3D capabilities without abandoning the classic overhead perspective. Gameplay is paced just right: Bombs don’t take an eon to explode as they did in “Zero,” but you have ample time to get out of the way after planting one.

Of equal importance to any good “Bomberman” game is how it handles multiplayer. (Or, post-“Zero,” that it HAS multiplayer.) Thankfully, this “Bomberman” also passes that test. Four-player wireless play is available, and you need only one copy of the game to have at it. “Bomberman” offers plenty of customization options as well: You can dictate what special items are in play, how many winning rounds equal a winning game, the match structure (2-on-2, 1-on-3, every Bomberman for himself) and more.

If there’s a disappointment about “Bomberman,” it’s the lack of online play. That said, should you play solo, bots can be substituted in place of human opponents. All the same customization options are available, and the bots don’t exactly lie down and let you beat them. Hudson included a nice 100-level story mode for solo players, but the solo battle mode (and unlockable copy of the original “Bomberman” levels) are so good as to trump it even when friends aren’t around.