Games 5/22/12: Max Payne 3, Mario Tennis Open, MotoHeroz

Max Payne 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Rockstar Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol)
Price: $60

If there’s a story-driven third-person shooter checklist for “Max Payne 3,” rest assured every box is filled. In terms of gunplay and presentation, it’s bloody, beautiful, cinematic and all kinds of refined.

But for those who loved the first two “Max Payne” games because they dared to be weird and were proudly unrefined in exactly the right ways, the polished but mostly disposable “MP3” may ultimately amount to little more than a bloody, beautiful, cinematic and refined bucket of cold water.

As cover-based shooters go, what’s presented here — set mostly in Brazil, with some flashback missions in Max’s old New Jersey haunts — is mostly terrific. Enemies are numerous and relentless. The levels (favelas, two crumbling skyscrapers and seemingly every square inch of an airport, among other places) are magnificently detailed and built to accommodate shootouts that develop vertically as well as horizontally. The guns are diverse and powerful. And while the firefights are stiffly difficult even on normal difficulty, any failings on your part cannot be blamed on the aiming controls, which are precise regardless of whether you elect to use aiming assists or not.

The problem, of course, is that “Max Payne” isn’t supposed to be a cover shooter at all.

To the complete contrary, it was the original “Max Payne” that popularized the virtues of the “Matrix”-esque Bullet Time, which let you briefly slow time, dive right in front of a quintet of enemies and blast every one of them with prodigious precision before hitting the floor and resuming normal speed.

For all we know, Bullet Time was simply an easy fix for a genre that, back in 2001, was still finding its footing with regard to control, perspective and difficulty balance (and was still years away from embracing cover as the cure-all). But who cares? Bullet Time looked awesome and was extremely fun to use, and the first two “Payne” games designed its levels and enemy arrangements expressly to inspire players to run, gun and go absolutely nuts with the mechanic.

“MP3” brings Bullet Time back, and it’s as glorious as ever to harness. But its levels are designed to accommodate cover instead of blazing guns. Enemies stream out at a much higher rate, and the penalty for taking damage from their guns is significantly higher. Tally it up, and diving into the middle of it all becomes a recipe for disaster. You’ll still get your chances to go crazy, but they’re rare, and you’ll either have to accept that or repeatedly die in denial.

Additional signs of lost identity lie elsewhere. Though “MP3’s” story is thoroughly entertaining, it’s a mostly humorless action movie that only fleetingly evokes the wonderful thematic insanity that defined its predecessors. Full cutscenes replace the graphic novel motif, and while (again) they look and sound terrific, they (again) do so at the expense of the series’ cherished identity.

(Max, to his credit, still mutters film noir-isms to himself between shootouts, so all is not lost. While his world has become less interesting, he’s still the best tragic hero in the business.)

Interestingly, the place “MP3” most closely plays like traditional “Max Payne” is in the one frontier — multiplayer (online, 16 players) — that’s wholly new to the series.

Multiplayer offers plenty to like in terms of match types (solo/team deathmatch, a story-driven Gang Wars mode, a 2-on-14 co-op/competitive survival mode) and amenities (upgradable characters/loadouts, mini-achievements, the ability to form crews with friends).

But while the multiplayer maps are built for cover as well, having teammates and fewer enemies creates boundless opportunity to run and gun with abandon.

You can even activate Bullet Time (albeit sparingly, and only after accruing it through kills and assists). Doing so doesn’t necessarily affect other players’ ability to continue playing at normal speed, but anyone whose line of sight crosses with a slowed-down player will slow down as well. The clever implementation allows Bullet Time to be as effective and fun as ever without disrupting other players who are fighting their own battles elsewhere on the map.


Mario Tennis Open
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Camelot/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $40

At its core and where it counts most, “Mario Tennis Open” has a whole lot in common with the preceding six games that had some variation of “Mario Tennis” in their titles, and for many, that’s probably all that matters. In terms of the finer gameplay details — control responsiveness, A.I. competency and the balance struck between pure tennis and the fantastical nature of the Super Mario universe — it’s the most polished game of tennis Nintendo has published since the Nintendo 64 got its version 12 years ago.

Or rather, it will be once you go into the options screen, select “Gyro Sensor” and, perhaps regretfully, disable it.

Along with the overdue addition of online play, “Open’s” neatest new trick might be the ability to dynamically change the camera angle by holding the 3DS differently. Holding the 3DS flat and looking down at it produces an overhead view of the court, while holding it upward and looking forward toward the screen switches, appropriately, to a behind-the-back perspective.

Problem is, “Open” degenerates into a mess when the behind-the-back view is active. The gyroscope allows you to tilt the 3DS to tweak the camera’s horizontal angle, but it also handles shot aim (which the circle pad capably handles by itself in the top-down view). The circle pad can still be used to control your player’s position on the court, but whenever you aren’t using it, the game automatically moves your player for you.

Compared to the top-down view’s classically simple controls, the weird mix of motion, auto and traditional controls is a clumsy mess. And because “Open’s” flimsy options screen makes the dynamic perspective a package deal with all those control conditions, you might be best off disabling the whole thing completely. There’s no way to have complete control while dynamic camera control is active.

Perhaps fortunately (though not really), “Open’s” use of stereoscopic 3D is so tepid during gameplay that you’re not missing much by disabling the feature. The 3D pops beautifully during menus and replays, so it’s clearly a conscious choice, but it’s a puzzling one given the obvious applications for 3D in a game where a ball flies at you at a fast speed.

The nullification of those features leaves us, for better or worse, in pretty much in the same place “Mario Tennis” always has been.

On the plus side, that means “Open” likely gives you what you came for in terms of how it plays. It’s polished per usual, and while the court designs are extremely festive, the emphasis on different shot types and court control makes this a sports game first and everything else second.

At the same time, It’s a shame “Open” sees no need to introduce new characters (besides your Mii) to a small roster that’s stagnated for a decade despite there being no shortage of characters in Mario’s universe. The modes are similarly thin, with the same old tournament cups instead of a season mode or the role-playing features that typically reside in Nintendo’s portable tennis games. The small handful of minigames is nice — a mode that lets you play World 1-1 of “Super Mario Bros.” by hitting enemies with tennis balls is especially clever — but their novelty is fleeting.

Per usual, “Open” shines brightest as a multiplayer game, and while the online offerings aren’t exhaustive, they provide some valuable versatility to the game’s biggest selling point.

Via either local single-card wireless or online, “Open” supports multiple combinations of four-player co-op/competitive/singles/doubles tennis among friends. Those with a competitive streak, meanwhile, can play random opponents online and accrue performance-based points that contribute to their ranking on a monthly regional leaderboard. The quality of play online will ultimately come down to the community, but “Open” does its part: Matches are low on lag, and finding opponents is fast and easy.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch, iPad (separate versions)
From: RedLynx/Ubisoft
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: Free

Maybe three years ago, the iOS debut of “MotoHeroz” — an off-road racing/stunt-driving game from the same studio behind “Trials HD” — would be nothing but good news. “MotoHeroz” operates almost identically to “Trials,” providing a large array of short stunt courses and tasking players with completing them either under a par time or (in the case of non-race events) over a par score. Because you’re driving a four-wheeled vehicle instead of a motorbike, “MotoHeroz” is a little more forgiving with regard to its physics — but only a little, and not so much that mastering those physics won’t spell the difference between getting a three-star score and coming away empty. Unfortunately, a fully-upgraded vehicle proves more important to your success than even your skill, to the point where achieving two- and three-star results isn’t necessarily even possible until you upgrade each level pack’s corresponding vehicle. You can, of course, accomplish this by replaying courses ad nauseam while you gradually accumulate the in-game currency needed to slowly upgrade each vehicle. Or you can watch some video ads and earn a handful of coins that way. Or, for the price of $4 per vehicle (that’s $32 for all eight vehicles), you can fully upgrade and cruise to a three-star score. And if you want the option to just drop $5 up front and play “MotoHeroz” like you would a fun, skill-based game instead of something that nickels and dimes your time and money and sabotages its own gameplay merits in the process? Sorry. “MotoHeroz,” the latest victim of the absolutely joyless freemium model, won’t allow it.

Games 5/15/12: Starhawk, Prototype 2, Junk Jack

For: Playstation 3
From: LightBox Interactive/SCE Santa Monica/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $60

Taking the entirety of 2007’s “Warhawk” and launching it into space probably would have been enough to make “Starhawk” a perfectly fun sequel. But why settle for one new frontier if you can handle a handful?

For starters, “Starhawk” brings the series — known then and now for its ambitious 32-player online battles — into the single-player campaign space. And diametrically unlike “Battlefield 3’s” dreadful attempt to do the same last year, it doesn’t betray its own gameplay sensibilities to tell a story.

That point becomes quickly apparent, too. Following a brief cinematic introduction, “Starhawk” sets you loose in a wide-open frontier that’s half deep space and half wild west. Within 15 or so minutes, you’ll experience samplings of the on-foot action (loose run-and-gun third-person shooting), the vehicular controls and the impressive scope of the missions and maps.

You’ll also get a small taste of the game’s most pleasantly surprising new addition.

Along with the action on the ground and (eventually) in the air, “Starhawk” offers a modest but satisfying layer of real-time strategy via base-building. Provided you have the resources, you can construct everything from turrets and blockades to buildings that produce additional weapons, allied soldiers and vehicles.

“Starhawk” builds this layer in exactly the right way, too. What you build and where you place it is no trivial matter, but actually doing so is as quick and easy as tapping a few buttons and returning to the action (which continues unabated while you build). The structures form almost instantly, literally dropping from the sky and assembling in seconds.

(The surprisingly fun story — itself, like its surroundings, a mix of dark sci-fi and hokey western — explains why stuff drops in this way, but even if you don’t care, the process is visually awesome.)

Seamlessness combines with scale to produce “Starhawk’s” most admirable calling card, and its large, multi-layered environments accommodate it beautifully. Anytime you want to fight in close quarters on the ground, you can. Anytime you want to hop into a massive mech and stomp on those suddenly-tiny same enemies, you can. And if you want to soar into space and dogfight enemy aircraft circling above, a single button press turns that mech into a hawk, and off you go. All the while, whether you’re airborne or grounded, the base-building features stand at the ready.

(If you played “Warhawk” and are wondering, “Starhawk’s” flight controls are considerably more traditional and, consequently, much easier to grasp.)

Though the campaign never unfairly exploits it, its inevitable shortcoming is obvious: If you want something done — in the air, on the ground and as it relates to base construction — you have to do it yourself. Your A.I. allies are only so useful, so be prepared to frequently be in three places at once.

That’s less of a problem in the game’s four-player splitscreen/online survival mode, where you share responsibilities with friends while withstanding as many waves of enemies as you can stave off.

But it’s no problem whatsoever in “Starhawk’s” 16-on-16 competitive multiplayer, which remains the series’ jewel.

Everything mentioned previously about scope, seamlessness and freedom applies to “Starhawk’s” multiplayer matches, and you’re similarly free to engage in all facets of the battle as you please.

But having 15 teammates at your back affords you the freedom to avoid the roles you don’t enjoy and even dive into a specialty. If you’re weak on the ground, you can patrol the skies exclusively, and if you’d rather avoid combat entirely, you can contribute (and accrue experience points) just as effectively by keeping your team’s base fortified. Human opposition and intelligence makes “Starhawk’s” multiplayer arena far more imposing than its campaign, but there’s no more gratifying facet of the game than 16 players coordinating their talents in the service of a dominant victory.


Prototype 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Radical Entertainment/Activision
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)
Price: $60

From its core out to the fringes, “Prototype 2” has a lot — arguably too much — in common with “Prototype.”

But the one significant change — outside of a new main character, and more on that in a bit — is a good one. This time, all that’s good and fun about “Prototype 2” isn’t completely torn down by the horrifying A.I. and difficulty balancing meltdowns that made its predecessor one of 2009’s most obnoxious games.

Conceptually, it’s business as usual. As James Heller, you’re still taking on both military and mutant forces. And despite filling a new set of shoes, you’re still a superpowered one-man army who can jump 50 feet per bound, sprint up the side of a New York City skyscraper, throw a car like a baseball and fully consume other people to shapeshift into them and acquire their memories and abilities.

This time, you actually get to enjoy these and other abilities. Raising the ire of a single mutant or soldier won’t result in insane waves of reinforcements instantly appearing in such thick numbers that your only recourse is to react and eventually just flee. Enemies still attack in packs, but they’re manageable enough that you can creatively take on a wave or two without a dozen other enemies constantly running interference at the slightest hint of player proactivity.

If anything, “Prototype 2” is too polite. Countering and evading enemy attacks is extremely easy even when outnumbered, and you’ll quickly gain access to some money moves that let you formulate devastating attacks from safe distances without fear of penalty if you miss. Recovering significant chunks of health on cue is as easy as dodging and countering, and if you take on some side missions and tack on the strength and well-being upgrades they pay out upon completion, you can inhale a battalion’s worth of military firepower without even paying that health bar any mind.

The kid gloves hold on for dear life during “Prototype 2’s” stealth segments, which task you with consuming enemies and posing as them to infiltrate restricted areas and shapeshift all the way up the food chain.

In the annals of stealth game enemies, none may be more gullible than this lot. Slowly clearing out a room by literally swallowing people who are standing two feet behind other people raises no alarm. Running up the side of a building and performing other superhuman feats may raise an eyebrow, but as long as you walk away casually, they’ll just shrug and dismiss it. In the rare instance you attempt to swallow a live person in his allies’ unbelievably dim line of sight, the game flashes an alert letting you know as much, and the action is canceled. And the guy whom you just grabbed and nearly swallowed before swiftly recanting the move? He thinks nothing of it. Carry on.

Still, if the difficulty balancing had to lean in one direction, this is preferable by far. Heller’s repertoire is fun to unleash, and “Prototype 2” lets you do exactly that in a big world that’s packed nicely with elective missions to complement the main storyline.

The only real step backward is Heller himself. “Prototype 2’s” storyline is one centered around revenge, and as Heller, you’re actually hunting the first game’s protagonist, whose actions in the first game indirectly resulted in the death of your wife and child.

But noble cause or not, Heller is just wretchedly unlikable — an f-bombing meathead whose character development is about as nuanced as the game’s stealth detection systems. That goes as well for writing in general: It isn’t so bad that you want to skip the cutscenes entirely, but it’s grating enough to turn on subtitles, mute the sound and play some music for a much more tolerable atmosphere.


Junk Jack
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Pixbits
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $3

If the vast, empty, open-world canvases of “Minecraft” are imposing enough to drown out the appeal of building anything you want, some good news: Another happy medium has arrived. “Junk Jack’s” conceit comes straight out of “Minecraft’s” playbook: As the titular character, the game world is your oyster, and you can mine its every resource — trees, rocks, the ground itself and dangerous wildlife, among other elements — and turn them into a new world in which to survive and eventually prosper. Instead of a terrifying 3D world that goes on forever, though, “Jack” bakes this conceit into a 2D sidescroller with a vibrant (and friendly) pixelated graphical presentation. And instead of shoddy documentation, the game arranges a wealth of beginner tips (and even a few crafting recipes) inside a terrific help interface that’s always handy but never in the way. Just don’t let the friendly face fool you. “Jack” is accessible, but its building tree — wherein resources become tools and tools become platforms for creating everything from gardens to machinery and more — runs surprisingly deep. And though its world is smaller than “Minecraft’s” endless frontier, it’s plenty big (and dangerous) enough to accommodate whatever ambition you bring to it.

Games 3/27/12: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, Isle of Tune

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $60

From Kinect support to the chance to reenact Tiger Woods’ upbringing, “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13” boasts its share of new features for the back of the box.

But the most paramount addition by far to “TW13” is a new swing mechanic that isn’t even a new way to swing so much as a dramatically better way to understand how your swing works.

The act of swinging hasn’t fundamentally changed: You still pull back on the left stick for the backswing and push forward to follow through.

But “TW13” finally properly relays the importance of maintaining a steady tempo by making it effortless to gauge it. An inconspicuous meter provides an overlay for your swing’s ideal span while that swing is in process, and a swing feedback system uses layman’s terms and dead-simple visuals to grade the speed, power and accuracy of your backswing and followthrough. Study them, and eventually the tempo just comes naturally — something that might happen with or without this interface, but never so knowingly and with this much satisfaction.

“TW13” offers a comparable interface upgrade for planning shots as well. Along with the usual tricks — zooming in to see your lie, asking your caddie for help — you can adjust your stance on two different levels and put precise-to-the-degree spin on the ball.

Per usual, numerous difficulty tuners allow novices and pros to respectively automate the planning process or do completely away with assists. But the presence of these new interfaces is a godsend for the rest of us who want to understand this stuff and do it ourselves. The interfaces are subtle, but they do the job perfectly, and their inclusion alone marks the biggest fundamental step forward this series has taken in years.

The monumental upgrade for “TW13’s” traditional controls stands at awkward odds with the series’ new Kinect control scheme, which is beholden to that tech’s minuscule appetite for precision.

To golf with Kinect, you actually face the screen instead of golf toward it (as you would with the Wii or Playstation Move remotes). That’s necessary for the Kinect to see your swing motion’s span, but it also means “TW13” can’t register the minutiae of a swing’s accuracy nearly as sharply as traditional controls can.

Other quirks abound. Planning a shot with motion alone is laborious, the menus are too touchy, and while some of the gestures (crouching to look at the ball, shading your eyes to zoom) are amusing, the Kinect’s occasional tendency to completely ignore a swing is not. The controls are fun for giggles and local multiplayer, but they hold no candle to the traditional scheme if you’re playing to excel.

(“TW13’s” Move support, now in its third year, has a greater capacity for grading your swing honestly, but it, too, is best relegated for casual play.)

Alongside returning features (career, four-player online/offline multiplayer, global online tournaments), “TW13’s” most novel new feature is the Tiger Legacy Challenge, wherein you relive Tiger’s career highlights — and not just as a pro. “TW13” adds the Woods family yard to its roster of venues, and you get to play out Tiger’s childhood accomplishments as well as his amateur and professional feats.

For social players, the Online Country Club feature is likely more intriguing. You can join other clubs while managing your own, which entails inviting members, poring over petitions for rule changes, and creating member tournaments. You also can challenge other clubs on the course (and reap some nice in-game rewards if you emerge victorious).

Elsewhere, a Skills Challenge feature introduces a dynamic (and game-wide) in-game achievements system. The persistent in-game rewards system lets you activate single-round perks that slightly enhance a facet of your game, and you can even use rewards to play a downloadable course for free. Master a downloadable course, and it becomes yours to own for free. (You can, of course, buy them — and any other unlockable reward — immediately for real money.)


Isle of Tune
For: iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch (universal app)
From: Happylander Ltd.
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1

The iOS App Store isn’t exactly hurting for apps that allow even the most hopeless wannabe musician to compose something tuneful. But you’d be hard-pressed to find one that does it quite like “Isle of Tune,” which combines music composition and city building into one hypnotically fun trip. “Tune’s” interface is straight out of “SimCity’s” playbook: Using the design palette, you can lay out roads and place decorative pieces (houses, signs, streetlights, bridges, trees and plants) in whatever arrangement you like. But only after placing up to eight cars on those roads and pressing the Play button does “Tune” truly come to life. As the cars drive by each piece you place alongside the road, the piece plays a note from the instrument it represents. And because each piece’s note is configurable — different colored houses have different pitches, for instance, and you can adjust volume and beat delay independently for each piece — there’s no end to how complex the resulting composition can be. Creating intersections allows your song to take random turns as the cars on the roads do, and you can place stoplights and adjust the speeds of individual cars to complicate things even further. “Tune’s” charming and accessible interface belies its incredible capacity for creating surprisingly rich music, and if you don’t believe it, the app’s Game Center-powered sharing tool — which allows you browse and download other players’ compositions while also sharing your own masterpieces — provides shining proof of the possibilities.

Games 2/21/11 (Part One): Word Trick

Word Trick
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Outplay Entertainment
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: Free

At first (and maybe second) glance, “Word Trick” looks like a shameless knockoff of “Words With Friends.” It’s Scrabble, it lets you play multiple games at once with the same turn-based multiplayer system, and it interfaces with Facebook to allow cross-platform play between Facebook and iOS players. (A Facebook account is, unfortunately, required to play the game — a disappointment considering “Trick” is otherwise integrated with iOS Game Center.) With all that said, if you like “Friends” but have grown exhausted with the glut of friends playing two-letter words that clot the board and award cheap points, “Trick’s” lone innovation may be all the originality you need. Scattered amongst the usual letter tiles are special green tiles. Build a word with three or more consecutive green tiles, and your reward is a double-, triple- or quadruple-word score on top of whatever score multipliers you cover on the board. In other words, large, board-opening words are officially back in fashion. If only these games could auto-detect rampant cheating, it’d be perfect. If you’re fond of rivalries and stats, “Trick” outdoes “WWF” in another respect with a some stat-tracking features that (among other stats) break down your win/loss records against each person you play. Achievement hunters also get a large stash of Game Center achievements. And if you have freemium and in-app purchase fatigue, you’ll be happy to know the price for “Trick” being free — an easily-dismissed ad after each turn played — is pretty harmless.

Games 2/7/12: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, SoulCalibur V, Niko

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Big Huge Games/38 Studios/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, suggestive themes)
Price: $60

Role-playing games aren’t expected to play as crisply as pure action games do, and action games need not run as deep in the storytelling and character-building departments as role-playing games do. These are the compromises we’ve come to accept and expect.

So when something like “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” comes along and shoots for the moon in both areas, it’s hard not to pay attention.

And when it hits the moon flush, it’s impossible.

It doesn’t hurt that, while doing this, “Reckoning” also inspires hope that it’s capable of putting a similar charge in the stagnant art of fantasy storytelling.

Whether it actually succeeds may come down to how you play. “Reckoning’s” massive world easily holds more than 100 hours’ worth of main and side quests awaiting completion, and each has a story to tell or character/land/race/legend to introduce. But as often happens with a story that sprawling, tales have a tendency to get weighed down and spread thin amid a gargantuan list of names to remember and quest objectives that, at least structurally, are more formulaic than not.

At the same time, there’s plenty to love about the colorful world in which “Reckoning’s” legend unfolds, and your role in it — as a mortal human who returns from death to shatter an immortal race’s sacred (and comforting) belief that everyone’s fate is set in stone and documented in full — is a terrific catalyst around which to assemble it. That storyline can’t help but occasionally disperse in the sea of characters, quests and everything else “Reckoning” offers outside the main road, but if you tend to it regularly and stay abreast of the mythology, the story makes good on the possibilities.

For its part, “Reckoning’s” interfaces make it pretty painless to manage not only your quest log, but the usual host of traditional role-playing elements. Though combat is as real-time here as it is in a game like “God of War,” classic role-playing underpinnings — hit points, experience points, dropped spoils from defeated enemies — still apply.

Most of what “Reckoning” does is borrowed, but it’s borrowed from the best. Dialogue trees and moral barometers are Bioware game staples. The chance to find (and craft) rare armor and weapons is heavily reminiscent of “Diablo,” right down to the color-coded system for increasingly rare tiers of loot. Lockpicking, extracting plants for potions, joining factions, committing crimes and warping to locations you’ve previously discovered are “Elder Scrolls” hallmarks. And while the system for leveling up your character is smartly designed around your fateless blank slate, it’s assembled using timeless role-playing pieces.

Where “Reckoning” surprises is with how it puts those pieces into play. The aforementioned “God of War” comparison wasn’t an oversell, because “Reckoning’s” polished action plays markedly in that vein — fast, violent, and with equal importance placed on your skills as a player and the choices you make for your character’s abilities and arsenal.

Initially, when your skills are limited and your inventory light, it’s fun but simple. But as you level up, unlock new abilities and tap into the surprisingly wide array of weapon classes, the doors blow off the barn. Streamlined controls make it possible to transition between melee, ranged, and magic attacks without pausing the combo, much less the game, and as tougher enemies appear, “Reckoning” places a premium on blocking, evasion and (to a wholly optional degree) stealth tactics as well.

Before long, “Reckoning’s” combat is dishing out a kitchen sink’s worth of ways to play, and doing so at the same fast pace at which it began. It’s always been fun to find a rare, absurdly powerful weapon in a role-playing game, but being able to wield it with abandon — as “Reckoning” gleefully allows — takes that fun to a whole different plane.


SoulCalibur V
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $60

Call it a shame, call it wonderful or call it inevitable and/or overdue. But if you’ve traditionally counted on “SoulCalibur” to give you a comprehensive single-player fighting game experience that’s accessible to all, your calls to “SoulCalibur V” may go unanswered.

It’s a sign of the times. Since “Street Fighter IV” revitalized the genre, fighting games have become kings of the mountain with regard to attracting high-level players and packing ballroom arenas and online lobbies with those bent on challenging or even simply watching them play. It’s a serious business, and “SCV” feels like Namco’s attempt to reposition the series as one to be coveted rather than mocked by that crowd.

Whether “SCV” succeeds at that is a question only that crowd can definitely answer in time. But the strides it makes toward that end at least give it a chance, even if they feel like me-too mechanics instead of innovations.

To wit, the most plate-shifting change to the fighting system, the Critical Edge, is “SCV’s” answer to “SFIV’s” Ultra Combo: You fill up a Critical Gauge meter, pull off nearly the same stick/button combo, and unleash an attack that’s visually spectacular and devastating to your opponent’s health. (Also customary: If you’re bad at these games, executing a Critical Edge is, let’s say, trying.)

Fortunately, the Critical Gauge feeds into other, easier maneuvers as well, including Brave Edge attacks (slightly more powerful versions of regular moves) and parrying. The inability to parry at will without cost means you’ll have to time your blocks and pick your spots to fight defensively — no curling into a ball allowed.

Along with the need to manage the Critical Gauge for maximum effectiveness, “SCV” places a premium on fighting smart instead of mashing buttons. That’s a pillar of any respectable fighting game. But if you’re accustomed to playing “SoulCalibur” with your button-wailing hat on, take heed: Unless you’re playing against like-minded friends or the A.I. on its easiest setting, you will be punished.

(Disappointingly, while “SCV” offers a training mode in which to practice at will, there’s no in-game tutorial that effectively lays it all out. If you need lessons, look to Youtube.)

As should be expected with the shifting mindset, “SCV” is plenty capable with regard to competitive play. The lag that tarnished “SoulCalibur IV’s” online component isn’t present here, and the new offerings — spectator mode, the ability to watch other players’ replays — are obvious concessions to those who want to study how others play.

Most fun is the Global Colosseo mode, which turns the online lobby into a 100-person virtual meeting place where players can chat, size each other up and set up matches as if in an arcade. With the Fighter Creator mode back and considerably more robust than before, there’s no telling whom you’ll end up fighting against once you dip into these waters.

If, however, you flock to “SoulCalibur” precisely to get away from the competitive scene to which “SCV” caters, you might be dismayed to discover just how costly that groveling was to its single-player offerings.

In particular, the abundance of match variants and challenge missions that made the series a must-play even when its only multiplayer offering was two players on the same couch? Nowhere to be found in “SCV,” which includes a standard arcade mode, an even more standard quick battle mode and a completely substandard story mode (roughly two hours long, no branches, one ending and most between-fight “cutscenes” comprised of little more than static storyboards and spoken dialogue) as its prime single-player offerings. Unless you’re willing to bite the bullet, make like Namco and join the competitive fray, that’s not a lot of return on your $60 investment.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Sulake Corporation Oy
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: Free for first six levels/$2 to unlock full game

There’s a big gap between the kind of platformers you can play with a fully-stocked controller and the stuff we typically get on buttonless mobile devices, and “Niko’s” attempt to close that gap just a bit is most welcome. Instead of automatically running forward, Niko (a cute little creature of unknown classification) waits for you to control him directly with standard virtual left and right arrow buttons. And instead of tapping the screen to make him jump and hoping you timed it right, an “Angry Birds”-style slingshot mechanic allows you to control the distance and angle of the jump to almost foolproof effect. (Fortunately, if you miscalculate or need to change tactics, you can adjust Niko’s trajectory while he’s airborne.) Control touches like that are, of course, nothing new in the land of buttons and joysticks. But they’re an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what is typically found in mobile games, and “Niko” makes all the right moves — precise controls, a clean interface and elaborate, wide-open levels that exploration as well as survival — to make them work in this space. Like any good platformer these days, it’s also as easy or tough as you want it to be. A generous checkpoint system means anyone can feasibly reach a level’s finish line, but if you want to do it right — a three-star performance, no lives lost, all collectibles found and an enviable high score on the online leaderboards — your work is cut out for you.

Games 1/17/12: Run Roo Run, Rayman Origins, Wooords

Run Roo Run
For: iPhone/iPod Touch, iPad (separate versions)
From: 5th Cell
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1 (iPhone/iPod Touch), $2 (iPad)

iOS gamers, are you tired yet of running games? You must be. While the genre — wherein your onscreen character runs automatically and you handle jumping and other forms of evasion by tapping the screen — is a perfect fit for a device with no tactile buttons, it’s grown so saturated as to become an indictment of the platform’s limitations.

With that said, can you maybe handle one more? It’s charming and very well made, and even if you’re sick of the same old thing, it adds a couple wrinkles that very effectively set it apart.

In “Run Roo Run,” you star as an adorable but vengeful cartoon kangaroo who treks across Australia to rescue her offspring. As you might guess, your job is to keep Roo hopping safely over obstacles while she automatically handles all the forward motion. Not exactly a trailblazing idea.

But “Roo” breaks away by presenting itself as a series of levels instead of one endless run where the only goal is to stay alive and accumulate as high a score as your skills allow. Each level is short, too — really short, in fact, with the entire thing fitting on a single screen. The earliest stages present maybe two obstacles to leap over, and you can clear most of the opening levels in three seconds or fewer.

Fortunately, there are 420 stages to complete, and with each 21-level chapter you unlock, “Roo” sprinkles in a new wrinkle beyond simple hopping. In chapter two, for instance, Roo acquires a limited-use double jump, while chapter four introduces fans that blow her upward. Later chapters bring forth tire swings, moving platforms, oil slicks, cannons, level-altering switches and more.

Once an ability or apparatus makes its entrance, “Roo” doesn’t isolate it to the chapter that introduces it. After Roo learns to double-jump and long jump off a bouncy tire, those abilities can come into play in later levels while she gets acclimated with another new ability. Gradually, those insultingly simple early levels blossom into intricate cause-and-effect obstacle courses that put multiple tricks to use in rapid fashion. Everything still takes place within the constraints of a single screen, but Roo might have to trek to the end of the screen and back before reaching the goal becomes a possibility.

The task grows increasingly devious in “Roo’s” later chapters, and it’s downright frightening in each chapter’s optional six-pack of Extreme levels, which rival “Super Meat Boy’s” harder levels in terms of testing players’ ability to navigate a small, trap-laden space with Jedi-like quickness.

And yet — and in a nod to another page from “Super Meat Boy’s” playbook — “Roo” never aggravates even at its most dastardly. Whenever you fail a level, there’s no reset screen to wait though: Roo immediately returns to the start of the level, which marks the spots where you jumped in your most recent unsuccessful attempt. Fail again, and it instantly resets again, and you’re free to keep trying — without even a slight interruption — until you get it right. You’ll get gold medal scores for clearing levels quickly and in one attempt, but you can experience “Roo’s” every level regardless of how much time you need to do so.

Good thing, too, because in another nice twist, 5th Cell plans to release free weekly 10-packs of new levels to complement the 420 that come included straight away. There’s no telling how many weeks they plan to do this or whether these packs will introduce new gimmicks beyond those already in the game, but with a price tag like that, it’s hard to go wrong.


Rayman Origins
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, suggestive themes)
Price: Varies

Every post-holiday afterglow, when the gaming industry briefly but emphatically hibernates in advance of livelier spring release schedules, there inevitably emerges a game that demands another look after getting unjustly buried in the sea of sequels and blockbusters that released all around it in November.

In a year as stacked as 2011, there is no shortage of candidates. But even on those grounds, “Rayman Origins” belongs at the top of the list, and it really isn’t even close.

Though not framed as an origins story — or concerned with storytelling in general, really — “Origins” earns its name by taking Rayman back to his two-dimensional roots. Like the 1995 original, “Origins” eschews three dimensions in favor of 2D platforming in the classic “Super Mario Bros.” vein.

But to leave it at that, even with the stipulation that “Origins” does its roots extremely proud, would be to spectacularly undersell how far games have come during Rayman’s 16-year lifetime — a point made apparent the instant “Origins” drops you into the first leg of its first level.

In contrast to the colorful but kinetically-limited sprites of yesteryear, everything that animates in “Origins” does so with the visual fidelity of a Disney cartoon — ridiculously detailed, silkily animated and very overtly expressive. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Rayman, his friends, his enemies or random objects with no inherent pulse: If it’s capable of being manipulated, “Origins” illustrates that manipulation in beautiful, incredible detail.

Presentationally, “Origins” is the total package, bringing all that line art to life in front of immaculate hand-painted backdrops and setting everything to a diverse soundtrack that’s in tune with the action and unabashedly cheerful without ever approaching grating. Treat it to good speakers and a high-definition display, and it’s a rare case where hyperbole applies. Two-dimensional gaming has never spoiled the eyes and ears quite like this.

With all that said, though, the real shock with “Origins” may be with the way its gameplay evolutions gratify every bit as much as — maybe even more than — its audiovisual advancements.

Partially, it’s a case of one feeding the other. All that pretty animation works in the service of “Origins'” controls, which feel as good as the animation looks. Rayman has an occasional tendency to over-animate and take a perilous step too far, but mostly, his movements are spot on. Even the underwater levels, typically the bane of any platforming game’s existence, are a treat: If you ever played “Ecco the Dolphin” and know how fun it is to dynamically change direction in that game, you’ll be pleased to know “Origins” does it even better.

“Origins” also provides an ample playground in which to put all this beauty to good use. The occasional special stage aside, every level has one goal in plain sight and two more hiding off the main road. Additional secrets abound, and while simply clearing a level isn’t extremely difficult, perfecting one — finding every goal and performing the acrobatics necessary to uncover other secrets — very well can be. The truly accomplished can even replay cleared levels with a speed run option, which requires you to beat the level in one go and under the posted par time to collect a reward.

Tallied up, and fortified with four-player offline co-op that lets friends jump into and out of your game as they please, “Origins” is a surprisingly lengthy game on its first playthrough and a wondrously fun time sink for those bent on replaying and acing it. Perceptions about 2D games aside, it was as deserving of its original $60 tag as nearly any other $60 game. With rapid price drops now in effect, what was easy to recommend before is now a task of cakewalkian proportions.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Stray Robot Games
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $2

If you spent part of your childhood forming words from those colorful letter magnets that are ubiquitous in every preschool and kindergarten, get ready to put those magnet-moving skills to good use. “Wooords” drops a handful of letters and tasks you with forming as many words from them as you can, and the interface is a transparent ode to those little plastic magnets. Dragging letters into other letters causes them to stick, and whenever you form a word that (a) contains at least four letters and (b) includes the circled letter that has to be used, it automatically registers and scores the word. Not having to register words manually leaves you free to add and remove letters rapidly to form new words, and as result, “Wooords” is simultaneously relaxing and frantic — relaxing because there’s no overlying time limit to worry about, but frantic because forming strings of words rapidly is worth more points than taking your time. “Wooords” includes a 60-level Classic mode in which the goal is to reach a score threshold to advance, and an arcade-style Word Jam adds a timer that you must keep at bay by hitting score thresholds. But the best mode — especially if your Game Center friends play as well — is the Daily Words challenge, which gives players 24 hours to compile the highest score from the same nine letters everyone else gets. The global leaderboard likely is tainted by cheaters, but the presence of friends-only leaderboards — in this as well as the other modes — makes that less an issue if you pull friends in to challenge you.

Games 1/3/12: Pushmo, Wind-up Knight

For: Nintendo 3DS (via Nintendo eShop)
From: Intelligent Systems/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $7

Though it took its sweet time, a stream of exciting original games is trickling onto Nintendo’s new handheld. Elsewhere, and following an even longer wait, Nintendo’s downloadable portable games channel is finally finding a groove.

No game embodies the light at the end both tunnels quite so perfectly as “Pushmo,” a $7 gem that also ranks among the best puzzle games to appear on any platform this past year.

In “Pushmo,” the goal of each level is to rescue a kid who’s stuck atop a structure and has no safe way to get down. You play as Mallo, and you have complete control of his running and jumping prowess.

Were the structures arranged accessibly, Mallo could simply climb them and rescue the kid. Of course, they aren’t. Each structure is comprised of multiple blocks of different shapes, and your task is to push and pull each piece (toward or away from you, but not side to side) until they’re arranged in such a way that Mallo can navigate upward and save the kid.

As Mallo’s mentor, Papa Blox, reveals different methods for arranging pieces, “Pushmo” offers some disconcertingly elementary levels on which to practice. It’s enough to wonder if the entire game will be entirely too easy to enjoy.

But around level 20, the tricks learned in those insultingly easy early levels start to manifest in more intricate ways.

At around level 55, “Pushmo” starts revealing its true self. The structures — sometimes formed in the shape of objects, animals or Nintendo characters — grow increasingly intricate and require layers of manipulation before a clear solution takes shape. A few additional wrinkles — manholes that warp Mallo around a level, switches that dictate which pieces can be manipulated at a given moment — eventually join the fray to complicate things further.

“Pushmo” comes with a staggering 250 levels baked in, and as the level count rises, it mixes patterns, switches and warp spots to create arrangements that are deviously clever and often look impossible to solve at first glance.

The fun, naturally, comes from the realization that a solution really does exist in there somewhere, and “Pushmo” takes wonderful measures to never let that fun degenerate into frustration.

There are, for instance, no unnecessary limitations in place. No time limit means you’re free to approach a puzzle as methodically as you please, and the lack of a move limit means you can engage in reckless trial and error without penalty. If you become hopelessly tangled, a reset switch at the far end of the level instantly resets everything. And a rewind button literally rewinds your progress if you make a mistake or two and want to hit the undo button without starting over. Finally, the option to skip levels and return later avails itself if you get stuck for a while.

None of these assists dumbs “Pushmo” down in any way whatsoever, but all of them combine to make even the most deviously difficult level a total pleasure to slowly pick apart and solve.

Also a pleasure: “Pushmo’s” presentation. Mallo and friends are the most delightful characters to debut in a Nintendo-branded game in years, and every facet of the game — from polished controls to vibrant level designs to an excellent utilization of stereoscopic 3D — would look first-rate in a $50 retail game.

Also? For your $7, “Pushmo” also throws in a shockingly robust level editor, complete with a means to trade created levels with other players. It’s easy to use, it works, and if “Pushmo” develops an active online community, the best value on the 3DS will only get better.


Wind-up Knight
Reviewed for: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
Also available for: Android
From: Robot Invader
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $1

If you play your share of mobile games, you’ve likely played “Wind-up Knight’s” opening level before. As the Wind-up Knight, you’re automatically and continually running forward, and your only means of control is to jump over trouble when trouble draws near. Yes, another running game. But “Knight’s” second level adds a wrinkle by giving you a sword and challenging you to thwack a few enemies while also leaping over trouble. Momentarily, you’ll also acquire the ability to roll underneath low-lying obstacles and block peril from above with a shield. Once you have a full arsenal, “Knight” truly comes into its own, throwing intricately perilous levels at you and demanding you juggle all four moves (sometimes two simultaneously) to survive the gauntlet. An upgrade system provides armor that affords some room for error (and, this being a mobile game, there naturally is the option to pay real money to unlock items without earning them). But until those slight comforts avail themselves, “Knight” is a make-one-mistake-and-try-again affair, making it one of the purest embodiments of NES-era console gaming to appear on mobile devices thus far. If that sounds like a recipe for aggravation, it’s worth noting “Knight” makes concessions to alleviate frustration: Challenging though its 52 levels become, they’re also manageably short. The controls are about as responsive as could be hoped for, collision detection is more generous in your favor than not, and when all else fails, the amusing visual and storytelling presentation make “Knight” too likable to stay mad at for long.

Games 12/13/11: Kung-Fu High Impact, Zombie Gunship

Kung-Fu High Impact
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Virtual Air Guitar Company/UTV Ignition
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence, mild language, use of tobacco)
Price: $40

There’s plenty to like about “Kung-Fu High Impact.” It is, in fact, one of the year’s better Kinect games, and one of the few that reaches past the realm of fitness tools and minigame collections to produce an actual game that tangibly benefits from Microsoft’s motion control device.

Just don’t be surprised if some of the most fun you have with it is when you have a controller in hand.

“Impact” is a 2D brawler somewhat in the vein of “Double Dragon,” “Final Fight” and any number of other games that propagated during the genre’s heyday. The stages are small but open-ended instead of large but constantly scrolling from left to right, but the gist — punch and kick the bad guys into submission before they do it to you first — remains the same.

In this case, though, you very literally are the character. The Kinect’s camera uses its motion-detecting magic to superimpose a direct feed of yourself onto the level, and once you’re there, “Impact’s” hit detection leaves you free to punch and kick as efficiently or sloppily as your ability allows. Backflips and a handful of special powers are triggered via poses or half-move gestures (because asking players to actually backflip is asking for trouble). But as far as your elementary punches, kicks, elbows, blocks, dodges, jumps and lateral motion go, successful execution is entirely dependent on your willingness to fight with conviction.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because “Impact” first tried this, with dodgy results, on the Playstation 3 as “Kung-Fu Live.” Fortunately, the Kinect’s significantly better ability to discern player from background makes “Impact” effortless to set up and exponentially less likely to betray you in the heat of battle. You’ll ideally want to play with good lighting to make it easier to see your onscreen likeness, but it isn’t mandatory to do so — only more difficult if you don’t.

On that note, it’s bears mentioning that even on its base difficulty, “Impact’s” single-player storyline can punish you. More than not, it’s punishing in a good way, with furious enemy rushes and an expectation that you paid attention to the tutorials about dodging and blocking as well as punching and kicking.

Sometimes, though, “Impact” simply betrays you — confusing forward jumps with backflips, for instance, or just plain not recognizing a crucial evasive maneuver. “Impact” is tough with regard to mid-level checkpoints and health pickups, and one bungled move at the wrong time can bring your life to an aggravating end. It doesn’t happen too much if you accentuate your motions, but it will happen.

Of course, when a game is as physically intense as “Impact” is, accentuation gradually becomes easier said than done. If you like the Kinect for its fitness possibilities but still want actual games to play on it, this arguably is the best combination of both ideals in the system’s library.

Occasional aggravation aside, “Impact’s” story mode is a treat, with diverse environments, some surprising special powers, and a clever means of putting you in the motion comic cutscenes. The game asks you to assume a fews poses for pictures that later are superimposed atop the comic panels, and it’s hard to say whether cooperating or flagrantly disobeying the instructions produces funnier results.

Local multiplayer (five players), however, is “Impact’s” crown jewel. Player one’s role remains unchanged in this mode, but instead of A.I.-controlled enemies, you’re taking on your friends, who control the enemies with standard controllers. It’s a brilliant way to make a multiplayer Kinect game without cramming everyone into a small space and confusing the camera, and the lengths players can comfortably go to torment an out-of-breath friend makes this a must-play party game.


Zombie Gunship
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Limbic Software
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild realistic violence, infrequent/mild horror/fear themes)
Price: $1

It’s hard to be mystified by the explosive popularity of mobile gaming when games like “Zombie Gunship” — which takes one of the most popular mission styles from a $60 “Call of Duty” game and practically gives it away — keep springing up. “Gunship” puts you at the controls of an AC-130 gunship, and if the aircraft needs no introduction, the game’s presentation — a semi-blurry, night vision-esque visual filter, presented from an altitude that makes zombies and fleeing humans look like ants — won’t need one, either. The customary weapons (a 25mm Gatling gun for precision’s sake, a 40mm Bofors auto-cannon for more explosive strikes and a 105mm Howitzer cannon for clearing out zombies by the dozen) are at your disposal, and the object is simple: Help as many humans reach the bunker safely before zombies overwhelm the perimeter and lockdown takes effect. “Gunship” doesn’t aim much higher than that: You’re playing essentially for high score, and the game’s two maps aren’t tied into any kind of narrative. But given its faithfulness to the mission style and its consequential ability to satiate the itch to rain down destruction from high above, that’s plenty good enough for the price. “Gunship” carves out some replay value via a currency system that lets you upgrade the weapons and unlock some other perks, and Game Center support means you can compete with friends for leaderboard bragging rights. (Achievement-collecting junkies are, for the time being, out of luck.)

Games 12/6/11: Mario Kart 7, Carnival Island, Medieval Moves: Deadmund's Quest, Need for Speed: The Run, Age of Zombies: Anniversary

Mario Kart 7
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $40

“Mario Kart” is the only racing franchise in existence where the worst experience a player has is when he or she leads a race. That misery persists in “Mario Kart 7’s” single-player cups, where opposing racers routinely will pelt you with blue shells and other unavoidably cheap weapons any time you dare control the lead before the finish line comes into view.

Fortunately, “MK7” is — like each of its six predecessors — exponentially best enjoyed when playing against friends (eight players, local wireless or online). That same horror persists, and it’s doubly pronounced with friends whose need to terrorize one another is as paramount as any need to win a race. But when everyone’s tormenting everyone and having a laugh in the process, any pretense about “MK7’s” shortcomings as a pure racing game fall away.

In other words, the seventh “Mario Kart” game isn’t too fundamentally far removed from the first. If you’ve grown tired of the act and wish Nintendo would at least do away with items that require no skill to deploy effectively, you’ll have a bone to pick with this one before you even turn it on. And if you still love the formula, “MK7” finds the series at its prettiest, most versatile and — thanks to 16 new tracks that are all kinds of inspired in their design — most elaborate.

Though they range from cosmetic to curious, there are still changes to the formula worth noting. “MK7’s” courses — the new ones as well as the 16 remastered tracks Nintendo hand-picked from just about every previous game — include stretches set underwater and in the air. In terms of locomotion, neither is a game-changer: You glide in the air and drive with some drag underwater. But the extra surfaces add vertical alternate paths to courses that already have horizontal shortcuts to seek out. A single track can have racers simultaneously racing beneath the surface, atop it and high above on a rooftop.

Nintendo also takes a nudge in the right direction with a couple new items, the tanooki tail and fireball, that allow you some measure of defense against shells and other weapons. The blue shell and lightning bolt remain invincible as ever, but hey, baby steps. The truly lucky will get the new Lucky 7 item, which grants a seven-piece variety pack of items to deploy as needed.

In the “funny but probably useless” column, you can toggle a new first-person view that lets you steer by turning the 3DS like a steering wheel. The viewpoint puts you at a competitive disadvantage and negates “MK7’s” 3D effects, which are the most eye-pleasing of any 3DS game thus far. But it’s amusing, a little exciting and, in a multiplayer session where everyone agrees to drive that way, potentially riotous.

In terms of features, “MK7” delivers what’s expected of it. The Grand Prix has eight cups of four races each, and completing each difficulty tier unlocks new characters, including your Mii. Collecting coins across all modes unlocks new kart parts, which you can mix and match to create the kart of your speedy, weighty and stylish dreams. Time Trials and Balloon/Coin battle modes return, though the excellent Mission mode from “Mario Kart DS” does not.

“MK7’s” online component also comes through with lag-free racing and a polished interface that makes it easy to race against friends, recent opponents or random strangers. The Community mode is particularly nice, as it allows you to set up an always-open lobby for friends to access as they please, though you’ll have to create separate communities different race and battle modes.


Carnival Island
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Magic Pixel Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $40

Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Zindagi Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $40

Every motion control system needs its own collection of carnival-themed minigames, and “Carnival Island” would appear to be the Playstation 3’s me-too equivalent. But the hand-drawn animation that opens the game’s story mode suggests there’s more to this collection than simple imitation, and while that isn’t all the way true, it bears out to an encouraging degree.

“Island” features seven carnival standbys — frog bog, skeeball, hoops, coin/ring/baseball toss and shooting gallery — in its base offerings, and because the Move controller is just plain more precise than the Wii remote or Kinect, the games work exactly as you’d expect and respond to your motions precisely as they should.

The responsive controls are, naturally, “Island’s” most important virtue. But the game’s best asset lies in the way it breaks from convention in designing 28 additional games simply by rearranging those seven base games.

While some of these variants are simple tweaks to the rules or the way the playing field is arranged, others — replacing the baseball with a swingable wrecking ball, turning the skeeball lane into a slot machine, providing frogs you can steer in the air after launching them with the frog bog — are considerably more clever. Many of them exercise enough creativity to feel like different games entirely instead of mere offshoots.

“Island’s” four-player multiplayer (offline only, sadly) very obviously positions it as a party game, but it bears repeating that the story campaign — about a dormant carnival you gradually return to life — is legitimately charming as a solo endeavor. If you like a challenge, all 35 games include a checklist of bonus objectives to complete, and many of them are certifiably tough. Naturally, because this is a carnival, you’ll win tickets from games that let you collect prizes for your character and unlock a few exhibits (a magic mirror, for instance) that are just for fun.

At first blush, “Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest” appears to have nothing in common with “Island” past its controller. But like “Island,” its best asset is the way it adopts a genre (light gun shooter) that’s part and parcel with motion controls and takes it down a novel new road.

In “Quest,” Deadmund (a friendly skeleton fighting unfriendly skeletons, and the story explains all) handles the walking while you handle the rest — swordplay, arrows, throwing stars, dynamite, a grappling hook and a periodic jump, duck or gear turn. You can choose which path Deadmund should take when he reaches a fork in the road, but otherwise, he moves forward automatically.

The resemblance there to light gun shooters is unmistakable, as are “Quest’s” enemy formations and the way it scatters bonus items you can pick up if you’re quick enough to do so before Deadmund runs past them.

But Deadmund’s arsenal makes “Quest” a much more versatile and lively experience than your typical shooter, particularly because you can mix attacks as freely as you like. Swordplay is ideal for close-quarters combat, and how you wield the Move controller is how Deadmund will wield his sword and shield. Imitating a quill-pulling motion allows Deadmund to shoot arrows at faraway enemies, while a quick sideways fling of the controller lets him throw stars at advancing enemies.

“Quest” intuitively maps all these tasks to one controller, but if you have two, it’s best enjoyed that way. The sword and shield are assigned to separate wands, alleviating the need to hold a button to use the shield, and shooting arrows is more fun when you imitate the bow motion with two controllers instead of point the one at the screen like a gun.

Either way, though, “Quest” is terrific fun — more an arcade game than what typically constitutes a quest in video game terms, but a fast, active adventure that is too nimble and seamless to feel gimmicky.

“Quest’s” storyline is a solo endeavor, but a separate Battle mode — designed primarily around surviving formations of enemies in an arena you can zip through using the grappling hook — offers competitive and cooperative play for one or two players (online or splitscreen). It’s simple, but it’s fun for the same reasons the story is fun, and a persistent leveling system gives it legs by letting you upgrade weapons and unlock new characters as you accrue experience.


Need for Speed: The Run
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Windows
From: EA Black Box/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $60

If “Need for Speed: The Run” was a sitcom plot device instead of a game, it’d be that one where a character makes a list of pros and cons and fills out both sides of the paper doing so. Great mechanics and a cool premise — a coast-to-coast, “Cannonball Run”-esque race — do battle with some regrettable design choices, and while “The Run” ultimately comes out ahead, the final score is closer than it should’ve been.

The benefits of driving cross-country are obvious, even if the story that creates the opportunity is drab. (Happily, the much-maligned on-foot chase sequences — interactive cutscenes that look flashy and push the story but aren’t fun to play — are so short and infrequent as to not even factor.)

“The Run” takes place in the United States as we know them, and while it’s doled out in stages instead of as a single, uninterrupted cruise, the recreations of numerous locales are extremely visually impressive. The premise also provides some considerable terrain variety, with San Francisco’s hilly streets and Colorado’s slippery mountains demanding different disciplines than South Dakota’s straightaways, downtown Chicago’s sharp corners and New Jersey’s perilously tight alleys.

“The Run’s” breadth of vehicles and tuning options is narrower than the norm, but it offers a satisfactory array of cars built to handle different surfaces and weather. The tug of war that ensues between responsive handling and the perennial sense of being one twitch away from disaster will strike some simply as less-than-optimum handling controls, but it does make for an exciting (and visually impressive) time on the road. The opposing driver A.I. is similarly polarizing: It brazenly rubberbands at points where a close finish makes for good drama, but you may not appreciate driving a spotless race that still finds an opposing driver cutting a 10-second lead down to nothing in seemingly no time.

“The Run’s” boldest idea comes with its attempt to treating a racing game like an action game. You get a limited number of resets (lives, basically) per event, and each event has a handful of checkpoints that you’ll revert to if you wipe out. Considering every event is pass/fail — if you don’t outright win that stretch of the race or complete the event’s objective, you have to redo it — it’s a novel, sensible approach.

Occasionally, though, you’ll get pegged for a reset simply by driving a little bit too off-road at the wrong time. Other times, the same offense doesn’t trigger a reset. “The Run’s” definition of out of bounds is frustratingly arbitrary, especially considering most tracks have approved shortcuts that reward you for going off the track.

This wouldn’t be an issue if the reset process wasn’t so obnoxious. “The Run” has deflatingly long load times between events, but it also frequently takes forever to load your last checkpoint in the middle of a race. Couple that with a supremely annoying reset loading graphic that flashes like a strobe while you wait seemingly ages for a chance to try again, and the mechanic’s intentions of maintaining momentum completely backfire.

That seemingly innocuous issue is the spark that ignites the fire that will polarize those who find “The Run” exhilarating and those who find it antagonizing and frustrating.

“The Run’s” story is fairly brief, but the game complements it with a lot of challenge events that reward medals instead of impose pass/fail restrictions. Online multiplayer (eight players) is pretty straightforward, but the inclusion of the Autolog social network — a persistent interface that makes chasing friends’ times in single-player events as much fun as racing them directly online — gives the game plenty of legs for those who like its methods and wish to master them.


Age of Zombies: Anniversary
For: iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch (universal app)
From: Halfbrick Studios
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (frequent/intense cartoon or fantasy violence, infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes)
Price: $3

With respect to the angry birds and that cute “Cut the Rope” monster, no character’s ascension through the App Store has been as fun to witness as that of the Bruce Campbell-esque Barry Steakfries. His personality, and the sense of humor that drives it, are what transformed “Age of Zombies” into something more than just another twin-stick shooter with zombies in it. If you played that game, you should know “Age of Zombies: Anniversary” isn’t a sequel, but rather a graphical remaster of the original game that’s designed to take advantage of iPad and Retina Display-equipped iPhone screens. You can decide yourself whether a pretty new wrapper is worth a second purchase. If, however, the whole experience is new to you, “Anniversary” is worth a look. As a (virtual) dual-stick shooter, it’s fundamentally faithful to genre conventions. But those other games don’t necessarily have this game’s personality, and “Anniversary’s” storyline — which finds Barry traveling to different time periods to conquer cowboy zombies, gangster zombies, future zombies and more — is pretty funny. The weapon variety is high, as is the opportunity to chain together considerable chaos for high scores, and the game’s polish — from control responsiveness to graphics to support for iCloud save data syncing — belies the price tag.

Games 11/15/11: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Super Mario 3D Land, Slam Dunk King

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Bethesda
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, use of alcohol)
Price: $60

Bethesda’s massive open-world role-playing games have forever been an endearing battle between vision and technology, with the limitations of the latter always causing bugs and weird production value hiccups that keep the former in check.

Quirks like those still make appearances in “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” but a sparkling new engine makes these occurrences feel like occurrences instead of the norm. Technology finally appears ready to ride along with vision, and “Skyrim” takes it to the ends of its earth in what almost inarguably is the biggest game anyone has ever made.

Improvements make subtle introductions during an opener that spotlights two elements — voice acting and character design — that ranked among previous games’ biggest reality checks. They remain weak links here, but the days of faces even a mother wouldn’t love and one voice actor seemingly voicing half the cast appear to be over.

From there, ambition takes over. “Skyrim” quickly introduces you to your first dragon — the game’s star attraction, and the lynchpin in a big first-act reveal that won’t be spoiled here. The scope and individual pieces of that encounter — dragon artificial intelligence in particular — are immediately stunning.

Shortly thereafter, you’re fully loosed into Skyrim — with a quest and a burgeoning storyline, but with the freedom to ignore them indefinitely and explore the land’s 16 square miles as you please.

And what a world it is. That “Skyrim” is gargantuan isn’t a surprise, because these games always are. But when you experience the enormity and variety of terrain — mountains crawling with everything from blizzards to bears to wooly mammoths, elaborate caverns and towns that exist far off the storyline’s main road, lush forests and fields that house bandits, dragons, giants and more — that exists between two locations that appear so close to each other as dots on your map, it’s just staggering.

Best of all, everything is fair game. Dragon chasing you? Lead him into a giants den and watch giants, dragons and who knows who else duke it out (and come for you next if you make a play for the post-fight spoils). In an era of games growing obnoxiously reliant on cutscenes, “Skyrim’s” most memorable encounters just happen — organically, dynamically and differently for every player who plays it their own slightly unique way.

That stands to reason, because you can sink 100 hours into “Skyrim’s” optional quests, guilds and storylines before even setting another foot on the main road, which should be good for another 50 or so hours. If you want to get technical, “Skyrim” never completely ends, thanks to a system that generates random secondary quests into perpetuity. There’s a limit to the variety of those quests, of course, but that’s the price paid for endless adventure.

“Skyrim’s” first-person melee combat still feels clumsy and artless, though ranged and magic attacks work well, especially with the ability to map different spells to each hand. Happily, Bethesda has finally figured out how to make the third-person perspective something more than useless curiosity fulfillment. It looks good, and it feels good for melee combat. A button press swaps perspectives at will, so you can enjoy the benefits of both in tandem.

Much more roundly improved is “Skyrim’s” overall interface, which organizes your quests, maps, inventory and development with considerably more polish than in the past. Leveling up is exponentially more dynamic: As you flex certain skills — be it combat and defense or persuasion and lock-picking — those skills improve and contribute to your overall development, which you can augment with special perks that are neatly arranged across all 18 skill categories. The interface still presents a learning curve, but it’s Bethesda’s most accessible system by several orders of magnitude.


Super Mario 3D Land
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $40

It’s hard to believe there’s a dimension that has eluded the plumber who took platforming mainstream in two dimensions, reinvented it in three, and spent entire chunks of two recent adventures running upside down like it was a morning jog.

But “Super Mario 3D Land” takes place in a dimension that is neither exclusively two nor three dimensions, and the game’s willingness to present itself from semi-fixed angles that change from level to level makes it hard to pin this down with mere numbers or names.

Lest you worry, “SM3DL” plays at its core like any other Mario game. Mario can run, jump, punch blocks and kick turtle shells as naturally as ever, and the goal — reach the flagpole before time runs out — is a callback to the very first “Super Mario Bros.” A hall of fame’s worth of classic enemies (Goombas, Bullet Bills, Boos, Bowser and his kids) returns alongside some new enemies, and Mario complements some new power-ups (the boomerang suit being the most prominent addition) with a handful of perennial and returning favorites (fire flower, Tanooki suit, propeller box).

“SM3DL” moves at a very slightly slower speed than most contemporary Mario games do, particularly with regard to how quickly Mario can transition from a run to the kind of sprint needed to make longer jumps. But the difference is nearly negligible, and if you’re familiar with Mario’s repertoire, you need not even crack the manual to become almost instantly acclimated with “SM3DL’s” controls.

Rather, where “SM3DL” deviates is by filtering that time-tested action through a new perspective that borrows equally (and simultaneously) from Mario’s 2D and 3D adventures.

Though levels frequently look like 3D Mario levels, they’re presented from a fixed angle that prioritizes running through them linearly instead of exploring them from all angles. Every level hides three special coins off the main road, and collecting them often comprises the most satisfying and challenging aspects of “SM3DL’s” main quest, but that’s the extent of exploration.

Initially, and thanks to a crop of early levels that are fun but too short and entirely too easy to complete, the perspective shift feels like a compromise.

But once it gets comfortable, Nintendo does what it does best and mines the new angles for as much unique gold as it can. Some levels pull the camera sideway to start as old-fashioned 2D levels before rotating and zooming way out to reveal a massively vertical environment that still moves with the urgency of an old-fashioned sidescroller. Occasionally, the game shifts slightly diagonally to add layers behind layers (think “LittleBigPlanet,” only more intuitive). Sometimes it opts for a strict overhead view with scrolling rooms — essentially paying tribute to the original “Legend of Zelda’s” level design while infusing it with the full might of Mario’s athletic arsenal.

“SM3DL’s” original eight-world quest never becomes terribly difficult, but when these and numerous other ideas start flowing and Nintendo goes a little crazy with the level designs, the continual promise of surprises lurking around corners makes the tepid difficulty relatively easy to forgive.

Should you disagree, the revelation of a second quest (which avails itself upon completion of the first) should soothe your concerns. Nintendo has been protective of the knowledge that a second quest even exists in “SM3DL,” so without spoiling too much of what lies within, let’s just say this: It’s much tougher than the first quest, and its fearlessness with regard to difficulty lets it go that much crazier with the designs and special conditions it tosses around. If the “SM3DL” Nintendo advertises on the box isn’t doing it for you, the one hiding behind it almost certainly will.


Slam Dunk King
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: PikPok
iTunes Store rating: 4+
Price: Free

With respect to the big-budget masterpieces and sprawling epics crashing onto store shelves this fall, sometimes all you want to do is dunk a basketball. On that, the polished-in-its-own-right “Slam Dunk King” has the last word. In “King,” basketballs fly into the air as if fired by a clay shooter, and your objective is to grab them with your finger and dunk them with a powerful swiping motion. Where “Dunk” makes this fun is in its allowance for creativity. A no-nonsense dunk will get you a couple points, but mimicking a windmill, corkscrew, alley oop or double pump (among numerous others) will award you considerably more. (You even get bonus points for pulling down the rim post-dunk.) If you want to net a truly inspired score, a combo system lets you chain a massive score by juggling one basketball in the air and dunking others without letting that first ball drop, which kills the combo and could potentially end the game. “King’s” embrace of style and risk/reward makes it a ton of fun to play, and a leveling system and suite of unlockable power-ups and courts gives it surprising legs for such a simple idea. It’s responsive to your swipes, pretty to look at, and supports Game Center and OpenFeint (complete with cloud saves, so you can resume progress across different devices) as well.