Games 4/10/12: Ridge Racer: Unbounded, Xenoblade Chronicles, The Splatters

Ridge Racer: Unbounded
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Bugbear Entertainment/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild violence)
Price: $60

Between the awkward subtitle and the fact that it neither looks nor plays like a “Ridge Racer” game, “Ridge Racer: Unbounded” arrives with a supremely unfortunate name as its introduction.

Happily, just about everything else is superlative going the other way. If this is the future of “Ridge Racer,” then so be it, because “Unbounded” is one of the most exhilarating arcade racing games ever made.

Per “Ridge Racer” tradition, drifting plays a key role in “Unbounded,” which includes a dedicated drift event as part of a large roster of single-player events centered around racing, time trials, “Burnout”-style car combat and occasional special events. Drifting (along with tailgating, trading paint and other dangerous driving feats) contributes to a power meter that, when full, lets you wreak some exceptional havoc on both your opponents and the track at large.

At its most benign, cashing in a full power meter is good for a quick shot of turbo. But it’s far more valuable as a means for fully obliterating another racer. Activate the power and ram a car before it depletes, and it’s good for a takedown that punishes your opponent and quickly refills your power almost completely. String together consecutive takedowns, and it’s the most fun you can have dominating the field. But with high bursts of speed come frequent opportunities to completely miss a perfect takedown and ram a wall instead. “Unbounded” is fast by default and completely reckless at top speed, and the risks, rewards, reflexes and snap decisions needed to succeed are appropriately thrilling.

A properly-timed power activation also allows for some visually spectacular track modification. Want to drive straight through a building for a shortcut while everyone else takes the road around it? Go right ahead. Again, though, you’d best time it right: Barrel into that building just as the meter empties, and the only wreckage will be your car.

The ensuing bedlam perfectly complements a blend of physics and heft that’s considerably different than the customary “Ridge Racer” laws of motion. Drifting no longer is a comically easy maneuver you can perform for a half-mile at a time: There is a pronounced weight to these cars that, along with a terrific sense of speed and momentum, turns every drift and power activation into a risky play. Different cars handle with varying levels of ease, and there are instances where a touch too much can cause a tailspin that dooms your race position.

That can be problematic, because “Unbounded’s” single difficulty setting is fair but harsh. Commit some ugly blunders, and you’ll find yourself in 12th place with no way to scrape back to third or better (which, in races, is required to pass the event). A persistent upgrade track means even a pitiful finish brings some reward in terms of experience points that eventually unlock new events and better cars. But the goal remains to place or win, and “Unbounded” won’t hold your hand and take you there. That’s refreshing, and it’s genuinely satisfying to ace an event, but if you’re easily discouraged, consider yourself warned.

“Unbounded’s” upgrade path carries over to multiplayer (eight players, online only), and while the head-to-head races are as straightforward as online racing gets, it gets the job done.

Much more interesting are the community challenges. “Unbounded” includes a surprisingly versatile track editor, and you can create your own “city” by packaging created tracks and events together. Your creations are shareable online, and “Unbounded” arranges the content into time-limited (some an hour, some a day) challenges where players worldwide compete for the best score. The event creator’s score is prominently on display as well, and even if you can’t best all comers, there’s immense satisfaction in outclassing a player in an event he or she designed.


Xenoblade Chronicles
For: Wii
From: Monolith Soft/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, partial nudity, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence)
Price: $50

No single gaming genre is mired in a longer slump than the Japanese role-playing game, which (scattered exceptions aside, naturally) has been consistently reeling for years.

“Xenoblade Chronicles” is the arguable slumpbuster — a massive adventure that arrives with significant fanfare and, instead of using that hype as a crutch, cashes it in to teach a tired genre some overdue new tricks. It liberally adopts concepts that have propelled Western RPGs forward, but merges them with a flavor and storytelling approach that leaves no doubt where its lineage lies.

Crucially, “Chronicles” lays most of it — a monstrous open world, versatile side quests, customizable armor and weaponry run wild — almost immediately at your feet following an opening sequence that’s similarly generous with its combat system.

When it doesn’t get in its own way, that combat is stellar. Like an early Bioware RPG (or, for JRPG fans, “Final Fantasy XII”), “Chronicles” combines real-time battlefield awareness and turn-based strategy. You have continuous, direct control over your character’s position, and because the action doesn’t break for turns, he or she will default to a basic attack against the nearest available enemy unless you dictate otherwise.

And you will, because default attacks get you nowhere. Thriving in battle means managing an array of skills, monitoring allies’ statuses and health, and keeping party morale high enough to execute special chain attacks and (if necessary) revive fallen comrades.

With a story that lands comfortably in the 50- to 100-hour range (dependent on your affinity for exploration, side quests and other electives), “Chronicles” affords plenty of time to get comfortable with combat and master the advanced techniques it gradually introduces.

But if there’s one aspect that stands out alongside the system’s depth, it’s how fast it is. There are no random battles in “Chronicles” — many potential enemies outright ignore you unless you engage them — but as soon as you’re in an enemy’s sights, the action kicks straight into fifth gear. Managing the particulars would be a cakewalk in a turn-based RPG, but it’s an exciting challenge when there’s no breather between snap decisions.

Occasionally, the system is caffeinated to a fault. If nearby enemies sniff a fight, they may jump in, and suddenly four enemies swells to 12. The camera is problematic by default, and it’s a mess when attempting to contain battles this sprawling. The chaos will frequently cost you the fight, especially if those wandering enemies are level 75 creatures who can obliterate your level 16 hide in one hit. (Fortunately, death is merely an inconvenience: Defeated enemies respawn, but “Chronicles” revives you at the nearest landmark with all items and collected experience points — even from the losing battle — still intact.)

Other nagging issues abound. “Chronicles” takes a convenient cue from Western RPGs and lets you warp to landmarks you’ve previously discovered, but the map interface is a hassle to use for general exploration. A passive mechanic that stops a fight to show you an enemy’s future attack is, while clever, disruptive to the combat’s tempo. The story itself is watered down by its immense length, and characters repeat the same annoying catchphrases way too often in battle.

Finally, though primarily the Wii’s fault, “Chronicles'” visual presentation leaves something to be desired. It’s visually sufficient, but it’s impossible not to wonder what this world would look like in high definition.

But “Chronicles” does too much too well for long-starved JRPG fans to fret over quibbles like these. Though strained, the story nonetheless gratifies with strong, likable characters who embrace rather than sulk toward their destiny. And with so much left up to players to decide — from character relationships to gear customization to the minor but wonderful ability to save anywhere — it’s a treat rather than a chore to carry that story to its conclusion.


The Splatters
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live)
From: SpikySnail Games/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

On paper, “The Splatters” sounds familiar enough. The object is to clear clusters of orbs scattered around each level, and doing so entails launching smiling blobs (known as Splatters) toward them at the angle and power of your choosing. Along with a three-star scoring system, comparisons to any number of mobile games would appear inevitable. But the Splatters aren’t called Splatters just because. Eventually — be it via collision or combustion — the Splatters indeed splatter into an unwieldy liquid whose properties and subsequent splash effect are exponentially dicier to handle than some angry bird. “The Splatters” offers a handful of maneuvers that let you change direction mid-flight, launch a powerful but messy kamikaze attack, and even rewind your active Splatter’s flight path while its physical instability and the surrounding level continue progressing forward. Chaining these and other tricks is imperative toward achieving three-star scores and sharing brag-worthy gameplay clips on the online community channel, but intricate levels and haphazard physics means even completing these 65 levels — sorted into basic, combo-centric and trick shot-centric flavors — a deviously fun challenge that goes well beyond simple aiming and firing. The challenge ramps up early and significantly, and the mercurial physics elude complete mastery even with practice. But responsive controls and an easy means for instantly resetting a level if a strategy goes south make the pursuit of those stars fun and frustration-free.

Games 11/22/11: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Saints Row: The Third, Jurassic Park: The Game

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, comic mischief, fantasy violence)
Price: $50

No matter which door you walked through to get here, “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” likely is the game you want or do not want it to be. If you think the series is staler than moldy croutons, so is this game. If you think it’s picked up too many bad habits that have sent it from the cutting edge to behind the curve, this one validates your position.

Conversely, if you think “Zelda” games do what they do boldly, peerlessly and just plain better than other games do, “Sword” could be the game of your dreams. And if you believe in motion controls like Nintendo does, this is the validation you’ve been waiting five years to play.

It is in the area of combat — a weak spot in every “Zelda” game released in three dimensions — where “Sword” unquestionably wants to and does leave its mark. In contrast to the Wii’s first “Zelda” game, where simply shaking the Wii remote any old way produced one of a handful of proportionally generic sword strikes, “Sword” accurately matches your remote (MotionPlus attachment or Wii Remote Plus required) to the sword. Hold the remote awkwardly over your head and Link does the very same, leaving him vulnerable to attack from enemies who not only take advantage of your openings but also punish you for telegraphing and repeating attacks. Enemies naturally exhibit weaknesses and tells of their own, and it’s on you to exploit them while keeping them guessing and keeping your shield up.

(The shield, mapped to the considerably less capable nunchuck attachment, doesn’t control as flexibly, but it handles basic blocking perfectly fine.)

In typical Nintendo style, “Sword” devises myriad ways to capitalize on its enhanced range of motion, and not merely with regard to swordplay.

Per series custom, “Sword” provides bombs for purposes of environmental manipulation as well as combat, but now you can bowl as well as throw them simply by doing so with the remote. Items you take for granted like the boomerang, meanwhile, are outright replaced by (unspoiled) new gadgets that function similarly but better take advantage of motion controls. That, in turn, feeds into puzzles and dungeons that accommodate motion without sacrificing the scope and intricacies for which “Zelda” dungeons are revered. Better late than never, “Sword” seals Nintendo’s case for motion controls as a way to significantly enhance a traditional game at no cost to tradition.

At the same time, “Sword” is swimming in idiosyncrasies that very, very arguably have overstayed their welcome. This is the most ambitious and moving story the series has ever told, but it’s one that undergoes nearly five hours of exposition, hand-holding and fetch questing before it starts getting interesting, and it’ll be a few dungeons after that before it really gets good. If you don’t like that early going, you won’t love the collect-a-thons and fetch quests that needlessly pad the time between dungeons, either. (Fortunately, the unfortunate lack of a passable interface for tracking optional quests makes it easy to just forget about them and plow forward.)

“Sword’s” orchestral score and watercolor-esque visual style are series high-water marks in both respects, but the continued omission of voice acting — whether you find that charming or archaic — sticks out more awkwardly than ever.

Link’s platforming abilities, meanwhile, are that much clumsier thanks to an awkward dash mechanic that gets more use than it deserves. And that obnoxiously binary brand of “Zelda” stealth, where simply getting spotted means immediately starting a segment over? It’s back in its brief but recurring role.

Stuff like this — and sometimes hours of it — are the price paid for the stuff in between, which finds “Zelda” in as fine a form as it’s ever been in the 3D age. This is the most ambitious game Nintendo has ever made, but it’s a stubborn strain of ambition, and if you come into “Sword” already baring strong feelings — favorable or otherwise — this one likely will cement them.


Saints Row: The Third
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows
From: Volition/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Price: $60

Three chapters into a series that began as a straight-faced “Grand Theft Auto” wannabe, “Saints Row: The Third” commences by almost immediately giving you a reaper drone as your first weapon upgrade and letting you call in (and control) missile airstrikes at will from that moment forward.

And with that — and following an opening sequence in which you lead a bank robbery that somehow culminates in an airborne shootout that includes skydiving into and through the windshield of a crashing airplane — we are off to the races.

Before we get carried away with how out of control this fable gets, it’s worth stopping and emphasizing how solid “SR3’s” underpinnings are. The game’s third-person shooting controls are far more versatile than what “Grand Theft Auto IV” produced, and the driving (and, eventually, biking and flying) controls are what you expect — loose and arcadey, but with enough weight that driving a sports car, street sweeper and tank (yes, there are tanks) are markedly different experiences. The graphics aren’t always easy on the eyes, but they certainly suffice considering how big, busy and free of load times the open world is.

Perhaps more surprising is how much care goes into the coherence of a story and world in which anything and everything goes. “SR3’s” humor is juvenile, but it’s cleverly, sharply and even endearingly juvenile — more silly than obscene, though exceptions certainly apply when one mission involves rescuing a friend from a brothel via a rickshaw chase. The main character’s gender, voice and appearance are your calls to make thanks to “SR3’s” terrifically flexible character editor, but nothing you do changes the lengths the game goes to develop our hero and his/her friends, enemies and random weirdo acquaintances into legitimately good characters.

With that groundwork thoughtfully laid out, “SR3” is free to go completely bananas en route to creating the most shamelessly bombastic open-world game you can play today.

Where to start? How about the multi-factional war that pits the Saints against cops, Luchadores, supernatural beings, an armed-to-the-teeth private military and zombies all at once? Because every faction brings its own playable toys to the fray, you can (among numerous examples) jack and joyride a tank, wield a weapon that’s basically the Gravity Hammer from “Halo,” or steal a gunship and rain hellfire down on gang strongholds that fall under your control once cleared out.

And that’s just the first few hours. Without spoiling any specifics, “SR3’s” toy chest only gets crazier as you progress through its story and wrap your arms around the ridiculous cache of upgrades, properties, (very) customizable vehicles and not-of-this-world weapons that recurrently avail themselves to you.

Your default pistol, for instance? Outfit it with upgrades, and it shoots exploding projectiles that launch enemies airborne. Should you launch an enemy from a high altitude, “SR3” will measure how far he flies and reward you in the form of experience points.

In fact, pretty much everything you do — from balancing a handstand on a moving jet to driving on two wheels to flying through your windshield after a nasty crash — is tracked in some way for high score purposes and cashed in for experience that unlocks more surprises. “SR3” wants you to use this playground to goof off as creatively as you like, and it lets you know by rewarding you in some way for every single thing you do.

The only place “SR3” dials it back is with multiplayer, with “SR2’s” 12-player competitive multiplayer omitted completely. The two-player survival mode that replaces it is amusing, but considerably more limited in its novelty. Fortunately, two-player anything-goes co-op — which was the absolute best way to maximize “SR2’s” burgeoning goofiness — returns intact.


Jurassic Park: The Game
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox Live (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows, Mac
From: Telltale Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, use of tobacco, violence)
Price: $30

“Jurassic Park: The Game” might be the year’s most insulting game — but only if you even consider it a game at all. In truth, most of “Park’s” most would-be exciting moments — pitting you on the run from dinosaurs — are nothing more than interactive cutscenes. Press the button prompts when they appear, and you live to experience to the next cutscene; miss too many prompts, and you just do it over until you get it right. Not exactly immersive, and unfortunately, the stuff that takes place in between falls even flatter. Telltale cited “Heavy Rain” as its inspiration for “Park’s” methods of locomotion and interaction, but even that game gave you direct control over your characters in a 3D space. This one doesn’t, often reducing mundane motions like climbing stairs and cutting shrubs to dead-simple and repetitive button prompt exercises. Worst of all are the sections that task you with investigating a scene and deciding how to proceed: “Park” somewhat resembles a point-and-click adventure game here, but with all the points of interest highlighted for you via yet more button prompts, your brain need not even apply. Between this and dialogue trees that all seem to lead to the same place, the whole thing feels more like a VCR board game from 1988 than a video game from 2011. “Park” had potential to take the movies’ mythology down some fun new roads — it’s set directly after the first film’s conclusion — but it’s impossible to get immersed in a game that often appears to be playing itself while you press a button here and there to prod it along.

Games 11/1/11: Kirby's Return to Dream Land, Battlefield 3, Ben 10 Galactic Racing, Dungeon Defenders

Kirby’s Return to Dream Land
For: Wii
From: HAL Laboratory/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $50

Kirby might not even know it, but the way he walks in “Kirby’s Return to Dream Land” — with a proud strut and a carefree expression that completely belies it — is amusing without even meaning to be. That goes as well whenever Kirby enters a body of water: He sports a stylish innertube at the surface, and instantly swaps it for goggles whenever he plunges into the depths.

There are a thousand other similarly effortless details to spot in “Land” — some of them silly like those mentioned above, others crucial to the game’s design, but all adding up to a prototypically spotless Nintendo game that exemplifies the difference between a good sidescrolling platformer and one devised by the company that created the mold.

This isn’t to suggest “Land” has broken said mold. As the title itself implies, this is a return to Kirby’s roots much in the same way “New Super Mario Bros.” brought Mario and Luigi back to their basics. “Return’s” primary objective — move from left to right and reach the exit — is as pure as video game objectives get, and Kirby’s techniques — strutting, jumping, floating, swimming and the always-wonderful ability to open his mouth, ingest enemies like a vacuum and briefly acquire their powers — are just as they were during his first visit to Dream Land.

Of course, Dream Land itself isn’t the same as Kirby left it. The levels and worlds are all new, and they’re naturally more elaborate in their construction than in past “Kirby” games. Simply cruising from entrance to exit isn’t terribly challenging, but completely mastering a level — finding every secret area and using certain powers to acquire every last collectible piece of the spaceship you’re helping Kirby’s friend rebuild — is pretty tricky.

You can, of course, return to levels multiple times to find the pieces you missed, and because these levels are so cleverly but intuitively designed and the game so polished in every respect, replaying old levels new ways is a ton of fun. New and old enemies afford Kirby more powers than ever to mimic — including some spectacularly destructive super powers that engulf the entire screen — and every facet of his many control schemes is on par with his every last visual quirk in terms of attention paid to detail. In every crucial respect, “Land” is immaculate.

Though the game doesn’t bend over backward to specially accommodate it, “Land” features four-player local drop-in co-op in a slightly similar vein to “New Super Bros. Wii.” This time, though, only player 1’s peril is of any consequence. The other three players — playing as Waddle Dee, Dedede, Meta Knight or a Kirby clone — can incur all kinds of disaster in a supporting role, which allows someone with skill to lead the game while young kids or other novices play along and assist without impeding the game’s progress. That makes it a less chaotic party game than “NSMBW,” but a far more ideal experience for families who play together.

As has become tradition, “Land” complements the primary game with a surprisingly filling selection of bonus content, including challenge rooms, practice rooms and minigames. “Land’s” core gameplay uses only the Wii remote, turning it sideway to mimic a traditional controller, but some of the minigames allow you to use the remote’s motion capabilities. None of them are wildly original in light of the billion or so minigames that have graced the Wii over the last five years, but they’re fun, well-made, and suffice very nicely as free sides for an extraordinary main course.


Battlefield 3
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Windows PC
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $60

No use wasting time being cordial: “Battlefield 3’s” single-player campaign is a bummer. Military first-person shooters have increasingly valued flash over substance since “Call of Duty” dumbed it down and became the market leader, and the less said about “BF3’s” me-too attempt — too many restrictive corridors, quick-time events, gimmicky diversionary missions that imitate instead of innovate, and stiflingly controlled scenarios that allow the psychic enemy A.I. to absolutely brutalize you if you dare attempt to ignore the continuous interface prompts and flex some creativity — the better. It’s technically polished but imaginatively bankrupt, and DICE — which proved it could construct good single-player campaigns with the “Battlefield: Bad Company” offshoots — should know better.

Fortunately, buying a “Battlefield” game for the campaign is like watching the Super Bowl to see the Black Eyed Peas. The multiplayer is the reason we’re here, and all the things the campaign condemns — the freedom to roam, to strategize, to fly that jet instead of simply sit in the gunner seat — are the things multiplayer lays at your feet.

First things first, a caveat: “BF3’s” console multiplayer suffers a steep drop from its PC counterpart. It’s limited to 24 players (two teams of up to 12 or four squads of up to four) instead of 64, and out of necessity, the larger maps have been pulled in a touch to prevent the slimmed-down armies from feeling too spread out.

Additionally, while the game remains plenty nice to look at when installed to the console hard drive, it doesn’t look nearly as sharp as those jaw-dropping demos you may have seen of the PC edition. Xbox and PS3 hardware simply isn’t capable. Combine that with player counts and match types (team deathmatch, territorial control, attack versus defend) you’ve seen before, and “BF3” isn’t the game-changer all the pre-release hype suggested it would be — especially with this being the third full-featured console “Battlefield” game to appear since 2008.

Demoralized yet? Don’t be: In spite of all the unfortunate news you just read — and assuming EA works out the server connection issues that continue to creep up as of this publication — there remains much to like about “BF3’s” online skirmishes.

In short, the ingredients with which “Battlefield” made its name remain intact. Even in scaled-back form, “BF3’s” maps are large enough to accommodate numerous attack strategies. If you want to commandeer a plane, tank or chopper, you can. If you want to ride shotgun and man the cannons, you can. And if you’d prefer to just hoof it on the ground, you obviously can. The usual classes (Assault, Recon, Support, Engineer) apply, and if close-quarters combat isn’t your specialty, the maps (and all-inclusive experience points system) allow you to contribute by providing cover fire, medical support or assistance with completing territorial objectives while allies cover you. All is for naught if you and your teammates fend for yourselves instead of strategize, but it isn’t the game’s fault if you don’t use its tools to their fullest capacity.

As is “Battlefield” custom by now, “BF3” is polished in every technical regard. Control is terrifically responsive, the sound is incredible, and — provided you accept the hardware’s limitations — its representations of New York, Paris, Sarajevo and places in between strike an impressive balance between scope and detail.

Assuming those server issues dissipate, “BF3’s” interface is similarly satisfactory. Everything’s where you want it to be, and the addition of Battlelog — a variant of EA’s Autolog social network adapted to “Battlefield” — is good news if you regularly play with people on your friends list.


Ben 10 Galactic Racing
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS
From: Monkey Bar Games/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $40

You need not have a degree in video game history to realize “Ben 10 Galactic Racing” — a kart racer featuring the cast of the “Ben 10” cartoon doing battle on fantastical tracks inspired by the cartoon — is a callback to “Mario Kart” at first blush.

Unfortunately, “Racing’s” aim is a bit off. Instead of harkening back to Nintendo’s iconic racing game, it ushers in memories of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when cash-thirsty developers turned every kid-friendly property within reach into a me-too kart racer. Like nearly all of those games, “Racing” falls well short in its bid to conjure the greatness of the real thing.

It isn’t for lack of enthusiasm on the game’s part. From the description of modes to the voice-acted banter that supplies on-track commentary and track overviews, there’s a lot of fan service setting the table. The tracks also vary considerably in terms of design, with numerous climates, themes, on-track hazards, shortcuts and other random curveballs and visual touches on display.

Once the actual race begins, though, “Racing” succumbs to a significant lack of refinement. The steering is tenable but not nearly as sensitive as you’d like with tracks that twist, narrow and reveal as many pitfalls as these do. Opposing racers sometimes appear more concerned with banging into you than winning the race, and they’re particularly good at nailing you with whatever items they have as you close in on the finish line. Some of the items draw obvious inspiration from “Mario Kart,” but others seem designed simply to cloud your vision on tracks that are tricky enough as is to navigate, and when opponents spam you with these items in the last lap — whether you lead the race or not — it’s aggravation on top of aggravation.

Rarely, between these issues and some blatant rubberband A.I., does actual racing skill feel integral to winning in “Racing,” which is unreasonably difficult on its Easy setting and just obscene on Hard. Be prepared, regularly, to take a lead into the third lap and find yourself somehow in last place half a lap later.

If your love of “Ben 10” is such that you’ll suffer through “Racing’s” shortcomings anyway, its multiplayer (four players, offline only) very likely will be its saving grace. Many of the aggravations are either non-existent or marginalized (and, if you don’t take them too seriously, pretty funny) when there’s a level playing field, and while “Racing’s” A.I. is unforgivably cheap, its handling and track design are sufficient enough to get the job done on the multiplayer side. There are more refined and more feature-loaded kart racers on every platform — if not “Mario Kart,” then surely “Blur” or “Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing” — but if the license matters more than the game, racing with friends is the best way to enjoy it.


Dungeon Defenders
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Trendy Entertainment/D3Publisher Of America
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol reference, animated blood, fantasy violence)
Price: $15

Don’t let the downloadable size or cheerful presentation fool you. “Dungeon Defenders” is a fiendishly deep blend of dungeon crawling, role playing and tower defense, and if you engage this journey of potentially hundreds of hours, you’d best begin with the tutorial. Superficially, “Defenders” follows the action-meets-tower defense blueprint: At the start of a level, you (and up to three friends via drop-in/drop-out online/offline co-op) strategically decorate your elaborate surroundings with traps, and when you give the green light and enemies rush in from all sides, you’re free to run around and get your hands and weapons dirty fighting anybody who dodges the reach of those traps. Simple, right? Sure — until you realize straight away how different “Defenders'” four playable classes are. Each comes with separate weapons, traps, attribute stats, pets and abilities — all upgradable and customizable — and the inventory and role-playing interfaces more closely match that of a $60 “Elder Scrolls” game than a $15 downloadable equivalent. Consequently, while “Defenders” holds up as a single-player game, it absolutely sings as a multiplayer experience. With four people coordinating an attack while each controls a different class (not required, just recommended) and solves unique problems with unique abilities, “Defenders” resembles a real-time strategy game in which players control every unit directly. The configuration is up to you, and between the story campaign, challenge room variants, player-versus-player arena and a level cap of 70(!) for each character class to achieve, there’s a mountain of incredible content on which to try every idea that comes to you.

Games 8/9/11: From Dust, Phineas & Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension, Fruit Ninja Kinect

From Dust
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming later for: Playstation 3 and Windows PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)
Price: $15

“From Dust” is impressive — visually, conceptually, and simply for the intuitive way it distills playing god down to tossing sand and water around like a kid building a sandcastle.

Arguably most impressive, though, is the bold way it combines a genre synonymous with free-spirited aimlessness and the one thing — a ticking clock — that unnerves gamers unlike any other.

Framed like a real-time strategy game, “Dust” tasks you with utilizing nature and some divine tricks to guide a primitive civilization across lands teeming with tidal waves, volcanoes and other deadly natural phenomena.

Though there’s some light guidance regarding how you instruct your tribe to move from A to B, the brunt of your influence comes via terraforming — literally grabbing a variable clump of sand, water or lava and dropping it elsewhere.

The results of your rearrangements are impressively organic. Drop a handful of water in an arid desert, and it will dampen the area but not necessarily create a pool. Pour it near a shore, though, and the land credibly recedes. You’re mixing paints more than simply replacing one element with another, and “Dust” very believably blends them. It looks terrific, but more importantly, makes the game immediately intuitive despite touting a gameplay concept that’s mostly unprecedented.

Of course, those elements believably blend for worse as well as better. A clump of sand provides limited help in curbing a downstream tide, and while a handful of lava can cool into rock and dam a raging river, getting even a drop of that lava near vegetation can start a fire that torches a village. (You can, naturally, douse it with water if you act quickly.)

“Dust’s” levels eventually complement these basic functions with a handful of totems that grant limited-use powers — turning water into jelly for a brief stemming of tides, for instance, or the ability to suck matter into a vacuum without having to place it elsewhere — and a crop of trees with aquatic, flammable and explosive tendencies.

But before you’re introduced to any of this, “Dust” introduces you to a couple things — objectives and time limits — that are even rarer in this genre than exploding trees.

Before you panic, it’s worth noting that “Dust” doesn’t stick a clock in the corner and ask you to fully inhabit an area before time expires. Rather, the time limits intermittently appear as warnings of pending disaster. You have all the time you need to finish a level, but when the game tells you, for instance, that a tidal wave will hit in six minutes, you’d best do what needs doing to keep your people from being washed away.

The tension infusion isn’t always welcome, because when your people are on the move, they don’t always find the best path from A to B. “Dust” controls sufficiently with a controller, but having to simultaneously babysit your tribe while terraforming on the other side of the map can
engender some righteous aggravation when neither man nor nature want to cooperate. (Fortunately, your people tend to cooperate far more than not.)

Those momentary slips, along with the lack of an open-ended sandbox mode, comprise the two biggest strikes against “Dust.” But the prioritization of tension and progression — through both a campaign and a great collection of unlockable, score-based challenge levels — makes for a better, fresher and more exciting game than if “Dust” simply adopted the same anything-goes approach as every other god game.


Phineas & Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: High Impact Games/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)
Price: $40

Games made with kids in mind have grown easier at a needlessly fast pace over the years. With “Phineas & Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension,” we’ve finally broken through the bounds of “easy” and washed ashore on “insulting,” and it’s to the full detriment of what otherwise could have been a pretty cool platforming game.

“Dimension,” for those unfamiliar, is based on the movie of the same name, which itself spawns from the “Phineas & Ferb” cartoon. If you’re familiar with the cartoon, you’ll appreciate how well the game mimics its look and personality. If you’re not, the game does an adequate (and funny) job of bringing you up to speed with the cast and the story, which essentially is an elaborate excuse to send our heroes running and jumping through different dimensions.

“Dimension’s” gameplay somewhat resembles that of the Lego games — a lot of running, jumping and combating across levels that aren’t quite 2D but aren’t completely 3D either. Like those games, there are two playable characters on screen at once, and while playing cooperatively with a friend (offline only) is the ideal way to go, the A.I. does a nice job with the second character if another player isn’t available. (You also can swap freely between both characters when playing alone).

The different dimensions translate perfectly as a video game, allowing “Dimensions” to send players into levels constructed from gelatin, balloons, garden gnomes and even old-timey monochrome film. The core gameplay doesn’t deviate dramatically between these areas, but the themes provide the basis for each level to flaunt its own share of clever obstacles and puzzles.

Problem is, “Dimension’s” obstacles don’t really feel like obstacles, nor do its puzzles feel like puzzles or the fights like a fight, because the difficultly of all three is just absurdly low.

Between puzzles, “Dimension” frequently crowds the screen with a half-dozen or more enemies, but they’re so inadequate that you can fight sloppily and still regularly come away unscathed. Though combat looks chaotic, the only hard part about it is actually losing a fight without purposely doing so. Health packs are rampant despite no such need for them, and should you somehow manage to perish, shaking the controller pops you right back up.

Everything else gets the same padded-wall treatment. Fall off a platform? No problem: The game resets your position without penalty. Stumped on a puzzle? No, you’re not, because “Dimension’s” interface and dialogue, while often amusing, spells out everything you need to do. The game occasionally changes things up — most commonly in the form of rail-shooter sequences aboard a jetpack — but these are no more challenging than the main game.

“Dimensions” looks great, sounds great and moves fluidly despite the wealth of onscreen activity. Your weapons are satisfyingly upgradable, and you can even modify the sounds they make when deployed.

But the excitement wanes when the sense of peril flatlines this hard. Even kids, unless hopelessly inept and allergic to adversity of even the enjoyable kind, will be bored by how gently this one guides them.

If you remain interested, the PS3 version is the way to go: It looks crisper, obviously, and it includes four episodes of the cartoon on the disc. Just don’t make anything of “Dimension’s” Playstation Move support: Outside of pressing the Move button instead of X, the game plays exactly the same as it does with a standard controller.


Fruit Ninja Kinect
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade, Kinect required)
From: Halfbrick Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

It took nine months for Kinect to get Xbox Live Arcade representation, but the first game it gets is, while not overly adventurous, a perfect fit. “Fruit Ninja Kinect” migrates the massively popular mobile game (and somewhat obscure arcade port) to Kinect, and it’s exactly what you expect: Instead of swiping your finger across a tiny screen, you’re viciously chopping the air to slice fruit as it flies into view all around you. If that sounds mindless, bite your tongue: There’s a science to maximizing your score by slicing three or more fruits in one chop without hitting fatal bombs or letting stray fruit drop, and “FNK’s” multiple modes — Classic, a bombs-free Zen mode, an Arcade mode laden with powerups and score multipliers, a Challenge mode that shuffles all three — each utilize that science in maddeningly addictive ways. The short length per game — a minute to 90 seconds, typically — makes it easy to keep replaying for better scores, and all those replays add up to a much better workout than the mobile game can provide. As with all Kinect games, “FNK” occasionally misreads a motion, but the slip-ups are surprisingly infrequent considering how much chaos can ensue. “FNK’s” only online functionality comes via leaderboards, but its two-player local multiplayer options — a co-op arcade mode and a side-by-side battle for the best score — are a riot (and, again, surprisingly proficient with regard to motion detection).

Games 7/26/11: Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, Wii Play Motion, Puzzle Agent 2

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Vicious Cycle Software/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40

Before it was cool to love “Deadly Premonition,” “Earth Defense Force 2017” was everyone’s ironically adored game of choice — a low-budget, sloppily-assembled but wholly lovable Japanese third-person shooter that took bad graphics, terrifying voice acting, comically stiff controls, jerky animation and mixed in a too-ambitious-for-its-own-good scope and some dead simple but absolutely chaotic shootouts to create one inexplicably great time.

With “Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon,” we have the third-person shooter equivalent of a cherished unsigned band putting out its major-label debut. An American developer has wrestled away the reigns, and it’s clear a bigger budget was in play during development. “Armageddon’s” control tweaks — both on foot and in vehicles — are a night-and-day improvement over “2017,” and while the visual presentation remains behind the curve, it’s considerably more stable and much better equipped to handle the action when everything is collapsing and exploding.

“Armageddon” has similarly matured in terms of content. Four soldier classes — trooper, jetpack, tactical and battle — each have a separate experience points system that unlocks new weapons as you play, and with more than 300 weapon variants on offer, you’ll have to play through the campaign multiple times to unlock everything.

For its part, the game includes remixed versions of finished missions and co-op support (four players online, two players offline) to make that prospect more enticing. Per genre custom, an arcade-style survival mode also is available for six players to shoot through together.

All of those frills are well and good, and they make “Armageddon” a technically better game than “2017” even as they take away some of the ricketiness that made that game so lovable.

Fortunately, if you can get over that, what remains is a game that, more polished and Americanized or not, still embraces what ultimately made “2017” a blast to play.

As the subtitle makes perfectly clear, “Armageddon” has not replaced giant insects with soldiers or stuffed the action into claustrophobic corridors. This isn’t a cover-based shooter against moderately large bugs: It’s an all-out bonanza against absolutely monstrous bugs, robots and spaceships on massive battlefields that are every bit as destructible as the balsa wood buildings from “2017.”

That, in this age of every third-person shooter running for cover, is what’s most important to preserve, and “Armageddon” hangs on for dear life.

The downside to all this is that, for all the chaos “Armageddon” unleashes, that chaos doesn’t change much from mission to mission. New enemy types appear, the remixed levels are a nice touch and the class and weapon variations certainly provide some additional flavor, but the core action — shoot lots of enemies, and then shoot lots more — doesn’t change much from the first mission to the last.

“Armageddon” isn’t much for storytelling, and that’s easily forgiven when your orders are to kill everything that moves and the act of doing so is mostly great fun. But when you don’t have much storytelling to do, you also don’t tend to mind your rhythm and tempo very closely. In “Armageddon’s” case, that leads to missions that start loud, stay loud, end loud and sometimes outstay their welcome.

This, of course, is nothing taking an occasional break won’t fix. But it’s something to bear in mind if your plan is to blitz through “Armageddon” during a quick rental rather than buy it and play it at a more measured pace.


Wii Play Motion
For: Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)
Price: $50 (includes Wii Remote Plus controller)

The Wii remote has been granted a new lease on life with the news that it will play an integral role in Nintendo’s Wii successor. So if you were on the fence about investing in a new remote — in particular, the Wii Remote Plus, which combines the original remote and Wii MotionPlus attachment into one device the size of that original remote — you can invest with a little more confidence.

And if you’re going to do that, you may as well repeat history and throw in an extra $10 for another “Wii Play” minigames collection that’s much better than its throwaway price suggests.

Similar to its predecessor, “Wii Play Motion” offers 12 minigames whose primary purpose is to demonstrate the versatility of the controller inside the box. This time, with MotionPlus capabilities baked into the included remote, that means games with significantly better motion control fidelity than the much simpler games in the original “Play.”

(As a side note, know that while “Motion” scatters two-to-four-player multiplayer support across most of its minigames, any additional controllers you use either must be Wii Remote Plus controllers or have the MotionPlus attachment.)

With increased controller versatility comes an increase in minigame versatility, and while “Motion” never feels like an active game in the “Wii Sports” mold — you very easily can play all 12 games sitting down — it certainly encourages players to do some surprising exercises with the remote.

The most clever example, Spooky Search, even has you pointing the remote anywhere but at the screen, brilliantly using the built-in speaker to clue you into the location of ghosts so you can grab them and struggle, Ghostbusters-style, to pull them into a ghost trap.

Star Shuttle, on the other hand, turns the remote into a virtual space shuttle, using all the buttons as thrusters and tasking you with carefully docking onto a space station. If you ever played the infamous refueling minigame in “Top Gun” for the original Nintendo Entertainment System, this will ring familiar. (Fortunately, it isn’t nearly as difficult.)

In a nod to the remote’s ability to recognize subtle motions, Treasure Twirl has you raising and lowering a deep sea diver by carefully rotating the remote like a throttle while tilting it to control the diver’s lateral movements.

The arguable gem in the package, Teeter Targets, requires an even softer touch: The remote becomes a teeter totter, which must contend with real-world physics to not only keep a ball in air, but guide it into different targets to clear a level.

Other games — an ice cream scoop balancing challenge, an elaborate version of whack-a-mole, a target-shooting game with multiple level themes, a virtual stone-skipping simulation — utilize the remote in less surprising ways. But while some games are deeper and more engaging than others, “Motion” doesn’t have any that feel like duds or even filler. All 12 work as expected, and all 12 are blessed with Nintendo’s unique brand of personality and presentation.

“Motion” isn’t hurting for replayability, either. Teeter Targets, for instance, features 30 levels and three additional endless modes, and each level and mode includes its own high score table. This isn’t the exception, either: Every minigame in “Motion” features its own handful of bonus levels and solo/multiplayer modes beyond the original mode, and every level of every mode has a leaderboard that records your and your friends’ best scores and times.


Puzzle Agent 2
Reviewed for: iPad
Also available for: iPhone/iPod Touch, Windows PC, Macintosh
From: Telltale Games
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence, infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes, infrequent/mild horror/fear themes)
Price: $7

Though not wholly original, “Puzzle Agent” nonetheless felt like a breath of fresh air for adventure games. Instead of more of the same point-and-click cause and effect, “Agent” unfurled its mystery through an intelligent assortment of brainteasers in the same vein of Nintendo’s terrific Professor Layton games. The storyline opted for a surprisingly low-key sense of humor rarely seen in video games, and the visual presentation — a mix of color pencils and charcoals, occasionally deliberately zoomed in to give everything an odd blur — remains one of a kind. If you played “Agent” and liked it, the long and short of “Puzzle Agent 2” is that it has more of it on offer. Loose ends from the first game’s cliffhanger ending are tied up somewhat, but new loose ends emerge in their place. The tone and visual style confidently migrate to the sequel untouched, and while “PA2” introduces some welcome new brainteaser types and cuts down on a few that were overexposed the first time through, most of what you see — from riddle types to how they’re presented — will be at least somewhat familiar (and, unfortunately, mostly easier). Still, for most fans of unsung FBI agent Nelson Tethers’ first adventure, this will suffice. The first game made a splash because it was a surprise, but it was the design, polish and variety of puzzles that ultimately made it endure. That, difficulty quibbles or not, applies the second time around as well.

Games 7/5/11: F.E.A.R. 3, Cars 2, Backbreaker Vengeance

F.E.A.R. 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Day 1 Studios/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language)
Price: $60

Is it possible to be both a mostly excellent game and a big letdown? It sure is, and “F.E.A.R. 3” — the arguably-misnamed fruits of a game in development since before “F.E.A.R. 2” released — stands as enjoyable, aggravating proof.

First things first: the story. Because of “F3’s” unusual development experience — look it up if you’re curious about the reasons and means — it feels more like a continuation of the original “F.E.A.R.” than its sequel. The game opens a big window into the tormented origins of the first game’s chief protagonist and antagonist, but if you’re hoping for a payoff on the second game’s cliffhanger, you’ll mostly be stifled until the very end.

Far more jarring than any of this, though, are the changes new developer Day 1 Studios has made to the core “F.E.A.R.” gameplay, which is known as much for its pristine enemy intelligence and creepy atmosphere as its unique storyline.

That atmosphere returns, though this time, it’s competing with a persistent scoring system that frequently (and prominently) awards you points for killing stylishly and using various weapons and techniques multiple times. The system, which feeds into a game-wide XP system that awards you perks with each new rank you attain, is a fun new wrinkle that, along with the ability to play completed levels as the first game’s antagonist, encourages replaying the campaign different ways. But the continual flashing of scores and mini-achievements definitely clashes with the moody atmosphere “F3” wants to present, and it’d have been nice if players who wanted to could at least hide the notifications and just see a post-mission score roundup (which the game already displays).

The beloved artificial intelligence also returns. But in a troubling development, it also leaves, and not just once.

“F3’s” early levels are mostly terrific, and the additional focus on cover — “Take Cover” button and all — doesn’t transform enemy soldiers into robots who repeatedly pop in and out of cover. They still behave intelligently, calling out your position, changing theirs and double-teaming you when a level’s layout allows for flanking.

But storyline developments also pit you against what, by any other name, are zombies. They stupidly rush at you, and “F3” immediately transforms into a twitch shooter that’s all reflex and no intelligence. An even stupider enemy type appears later to put up an even less interesting fight. A third enemy type is more formidable, but only because it requires more firepower to destroy and not because it does anything more advanced than rush you.

During “F3’s” back half, flat encounters like these outnumber the great shootouts that dominate the first half. The levels reflect it, too: Elaborate battlefields give way to stifling corridors, and some encounters may as well be from a light gun game. The highlights still outnumber the lowlights, but the margin is dispiritingly slim.

Fortunately, the rest of what makes “F.E.A.R.” great — excellent firepower and great control — is back, and it applies to an inspired online multiplayer suite (four players) as well as the campaign (which supports two-player local/online co-op).

“F3’s” splits its multiplayer between competitive play and variations on the survival mode that’s creeped into every shooter of late. But the touches it applies to each mode — an encroaching wall of death in one survival mode, the ability for players to possess and use A.I. soldiers as leverage in competitive play — add a layer of teamwork and strategy that works in perfect tandem with the low player limit. Additionally, the XP perks you earn in the campaign carry over here (and vice versa). 


Cars 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS, PC, Mac, Linux
From: Avalanche Software/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)
Price: $50

Critics have caustically dismissed the “Cars 2” movie as a soulless vehicle for endless merchandise tie-ins. And perhaps critics have a point, because while the “Cars 2” video game gets few points for imagination, it’s the first Pixar-branded game that’s better than the movie on which it’s based.

Like previous “Cars”-branded games, “Cars 2” is, at its purest, a racing game. Playable versions of a ton of vehicles — from the obvious picks like Lightning McQueen, Mater and Finn McMissile to more obscure choices like Daisu Tsashimi and Tomber — are on hand, and the game’s most basic event is a three-lap, eight-vehicle race to the finish line.

But while the movie’s identity crisis results in a messy story about racing, villains, world travel and surprising amounts of gunplay, the game just parlays that mess into something that’s a little bit “Burnout” and a little bit “Mario Kart.” You can use the right stick to sideswipe opponents immediately in your vicinity, and most tracks are teeming with weapons that may not look like turtle shells and banana peels but often function in a way that will ring immediately familiar to “Kart” fans.

As with most arcade racing games, you can accumulate a turbo boost by driving stylishly or dangerously. The difference in this case is that, because these cars are alive, they can jump on cue and perform various arial tricks without a need for ramps. A few ground tricks (including the amusing ability to drive backward) also help fill the boost meter, but jumping is the most useful: Along with setting up arial tricks, you can hop certain gaps and rails to reach shortcuts off (and sometimes above) a track’s main road.

Though the actual act of driving in “Cars 2” is a little unremarkable — the slow default speed of the vehicles will remind precisely no one of “Burnout” — it’s sufficiently responsive. When you throw in the combat and tricks, it adds up to a level of chaos that’s frantic but wholly manageable — accessible to players of all ages, but never so easy as to bore the experienced among us.

It’s only too bad the game doesn’t use all these bits and pieces to flesh out a few more event types than it has. “Cars 2” has a decent-sized single-player campaign, but the decent size means you’ll see the same handful of events over and over. Sometimes, in the case of races or events where you have to take out as many grunt “lemon” cars as you can before time runs out, the events are exciting enough to endure repeat performances. But other events that impair the formula — lonely endurance events in which you’re riding on a nearly empty track, for instance, or events that take place in open-ended but small arenas instead of on tracks — overstay their welcome rather quickly. The game misses opportunities to surprise players with new mission types and chooses instead to throw out more challenging favors of the same modes as the campaign continues.

Things diversify a little more on the multiplayer (four players) side: Some campaign events add a co-op angle, a few new modes (a destruction derby-style competition and a base defense mode) join the fray, and a free play mode allows you to design your own mission parameters (for solo play as well).

The only downside? “Cars 2” supports local multiplayer only. As too often happens with games aimed at kids, online play drew the short stick and sits this one out. 


Backbreaker Vengeance
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming soon to: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: NaturalMotion/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $15

“Backbreaker’s” full-priced 2010 debut consisted of a fun minigame that propped up a full-fledged game of football that was too broken to recommend. As such, “Backbreaker Vengeance” — which cuts the price, strips out the traditional football and trains all its focus on a suite of minigames — makes all the sense in the world. Like its predecessor, “Vengeance” kicks off with Tackle Alley, in which you’re the ballcarrier and you need to obey the laws of physics and momentum while using jukes, spins, hurdles and other evasive tactics to dodge tacklers and string together a stylish touchdown. But the new Vengeance mode flips the script by making you a tackler who has to dodge blockers and catch the ballcarrier, while Supremacy mode is a five-round, four-man race to the end zone in which the worst rusher becomes the tackler in each subsequent round. “Vengeance” doesn’t get a whole lot more intricate than that, but it complements each mode with five tiers of increasingly elaborate configurations of obstacles and opponents. It also smartly focuses on high scores and online leaderboards, using a risk-versus-reward scoring system to encourage total, creative mastery of each tier. The competition extends beyond scores, too: Each mode supports two-player local/online multiplayer, though the Supremacy mode’s inability to accommodate four human players is disappointing. 

Games 2/8/11: Test Drive Unlimited 2, Mario Sports Mix, We Bowl

Test Drive Unlimited 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Eden Games/Atari
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics, simulated gambling, mild suggestive themes)

In 2006, “Test Drive Unlimited” gave console racing game fans something — an open world swimming with other players driving and racing freely — they’d never had before.

Then four-plus years passed with no one else even trying it again.

So to call “Test Drive Unlimited 2’s” arrival welcome is to understate a bit, especially when the sequel produces two freely-explorable islands (Ibiza and Hawaii) instead of one, adds storytelling and structural enhancements to the single-player side, increases event diversity, and fixes just about everything — from vehicle handling to interface design — that had room for improvement.

Like its predecessor, “TDU2” blurs the line between single- and multiplayer to create a single, fluid experience. The islands are teeming with A.I. traffic regardless of player count, and those who prefer to drive offline will still encounter A.I.-controlled “players” who behave and can be challenged to instant races like a real human opponent.

Regardless of how you play, there’s plenty to do without the company of others. “TDU2” offers three tiers of driving — two street class, one off-road — and each has a ladder of license tests and competitions to win. These events run the gamut, including traditional/elimination-style races, time trials, speed trap competitions and other usual suspects. The out-of-event challenges are a bit less traditional, testing your ability to drive safely, maintain a dangerous speed and even tail another car without raising suspicion.

Like an MMO, “TDU2” rewards you cash and experience points for just about everything you do, be it competition points for winning events, social points for engaging other players or discovery points for finding car dealerships, mechanics and even clothing stores, salons and plastic surgeons (really) for your customizable avatar. “TDU2” allows you to control your avatar out of the car when at home or in places — shops, social clubs — where other players’ avatars may also visit, and you’re as free to challenge and socialize in these instances as you are on the road.

Keeping track of events, stats, shops and other players would be dicey without an interface to keep it together, but “TDU2’s” menu system is about as polished as controller-friendly console interfaces get. It’s pretty, it’s meticulously organized, you can use filters to reduce map icon clutter, and the in-game GPS works perfectly — even allowing you to fast-travel to events if you visited the road previously.

The best news about “TDU2’s” multiplayer? It just works. When you enter the world, players just appear. And while that wonderful interface gives you numerous ways to invite friends and create lobbies, clubs and multiplayer variations of just about every challenge (including cop chases) from the single-player experience, the ability to just cut off another human driver, engage in some impromptu street racing, and set up (and gamble on) a race with a tap of the high beams is immensely gratifying.

But the best news about “TDU2,” period, is how much fun it is to just drive these vehicles. The lower-tier cars are easy to control without feeling pokey, while the high-end models reward skillful pedal management with a fantastic sense of weight dueling with speed.

But it’s the availability off-road vehicles — and, new to the series, the freedom to drive absolutely anywhere on the islands, road or not — that will doubtlessly steal the show for some. “TDU2” nails the joy of taking hairpin turns in the mud and grassy roads, and the off-road competitions are responsible for every bit as much excitement as highest level of the high-end races.


Mario Sports Mix
For: Wii
From: Square-Enix/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

With respect to the “Wii Sports” titles and the clever ways they introduced motion gaming to the masses, they’re nowhere near the best sports games to release under Nintendo’s watch. That distinction instead goes to the Mario Sports games, and while it stagnates in some areas, “Mario Sports Mix” very capably reminds us why.

Unlike most Mario sports games, “Mix” takes on four sports — hockey, basketball, volleyball, dodgeball — instead of one.

But while stretching it thin does come at a price — there’s no career mode like the baseball-centric “Mario Super Sluggers” had three years ago, for instance — it doesn’t result in “Mix” diluting its sports and reducing them to glorified mini-games the way “Wii Sports” does. They’re casual representations, and hockey and basketball support three-on-three and two-on-two play instead of five-on-five. But the games control traditionally (either with a remote-and-nunchuck configuration or just the remote held sideways) rather than as motion control demonstrations, so there’s no need to strip away entire facets of the sport the way “Wii Sports” had to do.

The emphasis on traditional controls is a welcome show of restraint for a series that could have gone the complete other way. “Mix” keeps the basics of each sport super simple while creating a second layer of slightly advanced techniques — dekes, fakes, special shots — for skilled players who endeavor to use them. Some controls involve shaking the remote, but none involves any kind of gesture recognition, which allows “Mix” to maintain the high tempo that’s synonymous with these games. The Mario sports games have always compensated for their simplicity with an insatiable taste for speed and controlled chaos, and “Mix” keeps up beautifully.

“Mix” upholds additional series conventions by going appropriately nuts with the Mario iconography. The game’s cast of playable characters remains disappointingly thin — there are no new additions unless you count your Mii avatar — but each sport has a healthy selection of themed stadiums and courts that bring with them unique rules, conditions and sometimes obstructions. A manageable influx of “Mario Kart”-style special items allows for the temporary disruption of opposing game plans, and each character has super moves that are awfully tough to stop (but, in an ever-welcome touch, are not unstoppable if you’re quick enough).

“Mix’s” tepid single-player depth is disappointing: The usual Mushroom/Flower/Star Cup tournaments are accounted for, but also per usual, the difficulty is too tame to challenge even moderately talented players. Solo players can always play online, and the game’s interface and stat tracking (as well as its performance) are satisfactory. But the lack of voice chat support puts a damper on that experience as well. (Has Nintendo forgetten about its own voice chat peripheral? Seems so.)

But as has always been the case with these games, “Mix” is exponentially at its best when you’re playing with others in the same room. The combination of speed, chaos and simple but polished controls makes this a terrific party game that strikes an enviable balance between accessibility and excitement, and the four sports represented here are natural fits for the formula. “Mix,” to its credit, supports local multiplayer just about everywhere, including tournament play (three players), online co-op (two) and traditional competitive play (four).


We Bowl
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Freeverse
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: It’s complicated

Freeverse has demonstrated a mastery of dangling carrots with its outstanding “Skee-Ball” and improbably addictive “Coin Push Frenzy” iOS games. But it errs miserably with “We Bowl,” which validates every concern ever expressed regarding the “freemium” game model. On the surface, “Bowl” is a pleasant — albeit unspectacular, thanks to stiff controls — bowling game. Like “Skee-Ball,” it rewards good performance with tickets that, once accumulated, can unlock pins, props and clothes for your customized bowling alley and bowler. Problem is, “Bowl” is only playable when you have golden balls, which is its form of in-game currency. You start with 20, each throw costs one, and when you run out — even mid-game — you either have to wait 30 seconds to bowl again (and then wait again) or pay real money to purchase a “bag” instantly. “Bowl” clearly wants to you exercise option B if the blanketing of “Buy this!” reminders is any indication, and the net result of waiting and being pelted with ads for balls (along with other ads that are easy to accidentally tap) is so much worse than if “Bowl” had just asked for a few bucks up front and left you alone to play the game. The bowling isn’t good enough for this hassle to be worthwhile, and the only thing “Bowl” nails is how to alienate customers before they can even drop a dime.

Games 12/14/10: uDraw GameTablet, uDraw Studio, The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout, The Moonsters

uDraw GameTablet (includes uDraw Studio)
For: Wii
From: Pipeworks Software/THQ
Price: $70
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It probably goes without saying, but just in case it doesn’t, the uDraw GameTablet and accompanying “uDraw Studio” software are not optimized to facilitate the creation of serious artwork. The tablet isn’t as pressure-sensitive as a comparably-priced PC tablet, and while you can export your artwork to an SD card, the dimensions of the image (576 pixels wide, 396 pixels long) and the presence of a “uDraw Studio” watermark in the lower left corner aren’t exactly conducive to any kind of presentation beyond sharing with friends.

But just as “Mario Paint” became a sensation in 1992 despite coming nowhere close to playing in Adobe Premiere’s ballpark, “Studio” need not mimic Corel Paint to fulfill its promise as a fun and inexpensive outlet for kids and casual artists to flash some creativity. And because THQ has accompanied the uDraw’s launch with two other games that take advantage of the device in wholly different ways, it has positioned it as perhaps the only Wii peripheral besides the Balance Board to receive meaningful software support going forward.

Quibbles with pressure sensitivity aside, the uDraw is otherwise gifted with smart design choices. It contains a slot in which to pop a Wii remote, which gives the device a familiar array of buttons on the left side and access to the B trigger on the underside. The remote also provides all power to the tablet, which means that in addition to requiring no extra batteries, the tablet is as wireless and easy to pass around as any other controller.

The large stylus contains a useful two-function button (imagine a computer mouse’s two buttons fused into one) on its side, and while it is tethered to the tablet, the cord does not detract from the comfort of holding it. In a nice touch, the tablet includes two spots for storing the stylus — flat on the underside or like a quill in the top right corner — when not in use.

“Studio’s” design isn’t quite so elegant, and parents should make a point to run through the manual in order to help kids get comfortable with what initially is an intimidating and clumsily-arranged menu interface. “Studio’s” range of tools — multiple painting and drawing tools, multiple color pickers, stamps, filters — is impressive, but its interface organization requires some patient acclimation before it feels natural. (Tip: Though you can activate and navigate the tools palettes with the stylus buttons, using the remote is considerably more convenient.)

The good news is that once it feels natural, actually drawing with the uDraw works well. The limited pressure sensitivity provides some roadblocks, but it’s still entirely possible to create some legitimately great art using the tools on hand. The limitations placed on exported files is a real downer, but anyone who simply wants to sketch, save and share their creations can still easily do so if those limitations aren’t a problem.

It’s entirely feasible, anyway, that THQ could follow up “Studio” with a more powerful, more streamlined sequel, because the studio so far has backed up its claims that it will support the uDraw with more software than Nintendo usually produces for its own neglected peripherals. Already, the puzzle adventure game “Dood’s Big Adventure” provides a great showcase of the tablet’s strengths as applied to a traditional video game, while “Pictionary” freshens up a classic party game and demonstrates how much fun it is to pass the tablet around the room. THQ claims it has software tentatively lined up for release through the beginning of 2012, so the tablet’s future appears to be a bright one.


The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Blitz Games/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The paradoxically great news about “The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout” is that while it makes an alarmingly unfavorable first impression by botching the easy part, it redeems itself 10 times over by getting the hard part right — and, in doing so, demonstrating how viable Kinect is as a fitness tool.

Before you find that out, though, you must contend with the game’s menu interface, which is an exercise in itself. Very few Kinect games have demonstrated an aptitude for controller-free menu navigation, and “Workout” is especially poor. The buttons are too small, the time needed to hold your hand in place to activate them is too long, and the cursor compounds these issues by having a slight mind of its own and occasionally wandering off the button just before it activates. With practice and some familiarity with the wandering cursor’s ways, the problem becomes surmountable in the main menus. But when the interface calls for more precision — most notably, during the character creation area — you’ll just wish Microsoft would force developers to enable the controller as an optional means for menu navigation.

Fortunately, “Workout” demonstrates a whole different level of savvy when the task of actually working out is at hand.

Though “Workout” lets you take on its exercises as you please, its best offering is the availability of circuit-training sessions designed by trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, whose likenesses appear in the game as personal trainers. “Workout” allows you to design your own sessions, but its strength is its ability to tailor routines around basic settings (difficulty, length) and lay them out in a Fitness Program mode that gives you a calendar, goals and a clear picture of forward progress.

In action, the game absolutely shines. During all activities, a solid-colored likeness of your real self appears in the lower right corner, and the color of that likeness — ranging from green (perfect) to yellow (OK) to red (bad) — provides simple, continual feedback on how closely you’re replicating each exercise. Additional details above and below the likeness offer more specific feedback, making it easy to see what you’re doing wrong and what adjustments are necessary to correct it. The trainers repeat their lines a lot, sometimes consecutively, but for exercises that have you facing sideways, the spoken feedback’s value outweighs its repetition. (Thanks to the Kinect’s microphone, you can even talk back when your trainer asks if you need a break or are ready for something tougher.)

All this feedback checks out, too, because “Workout” is surprisingly good at reading and diagnosing the specifics of its exercises. Misinterpretations are inevitable, but the game never completely fouls up even when an exercise seems too complex for Kinect’s eyes, and the constant feedback makes it easy to understand and correct the source of the confusion when it pops up.

“Workout’s” impressive capacity makes it easy to let the Fitness Program take the lead and throw out whatever workout sessions it feels are best for your personal progress, and those willing to let it go further can also utilize the game’s secondary features, which include fitness tips, a calorie tracker, body analysis, extracurricular activities and mini-game challenges inspired by the challenges seen on the show. Those who want the full show experience can even participate in weigh-ins and record video diaries for posterity. You can’t plot against your fellow ranchers like they so often do on the show, but up to four players can play challenges and participate in multiplayer workouts over Xbox Live.


The Moonsters
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Ars Thanea
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1

Though it’s easy and helpful to compare the basic controls of “The Moonsters” to those of “Angry Birds,” the game does too much differently — and does it too well — to simply dismiss it as yet another “Birds” imitation product. Instead of launching birds sideways, you’re launching a trio of silly looking aliens (called Moonsters) upward. The goal is to collect pieces of space tofu sprinkled around the area rather than wreak havoc. The key to a perfectly-placed shot relies more on geometry than physics. And instead of allowing multiple attempts per round, “The Moonsters” wants you to collect all the tofu in one strike. Perfection isn’t mandatory, and so long as you collect enough pieces to meet each level’s quota, the game scores and grades the effort and opens up the next level. But “The Moonsters” is most fun when it comes down to discovering the secret angle that results in a perfect score in each of the 100 levels, and it further encourages chasing perfection with Game Center achievements, high score leaderboards, a completely painless trial-and-error interface, and a story with three unlockable endings. Those secret endings hold more value than is initially apparent, because in addition to playing well, “The Moonsters” is gifted with a charming story, great character design, a sublime graphical style, and some of the most pleasantly catchy music to grace a mobile phone game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Games 11/30/10: Create, Gran Turismo 5, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Spelunker HD

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows, Macintosh
From: EA Bright Light Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone

For whatever reason — and the title sure doesn’t help — “Create” has been perceived as a genre rival to “LittleBigPlanet,” a 2D platformer that allowed players to design and share their own levels and has a sequel coming in January that lets people design entire games across a multitude of genres. “Create” doesn’t do that, which naturally makes it sound sorely overmatched.

But “Create” doesn’t do that because it isn’t designed to do that. Rather, this is “The Incredible Machine” for the modern era — a series of simple problems in need of complicated, Rube Goldberg-esque solutions, with a nice helping of physics and other contemporary amenities to freshen up a beloved but long-neglected video game concept.

“Create’s” cheerfully colorful exterior marks it as a game that wants to appeal to all ages, and its first hour — which meticulously introduces the concept and interface through a series of extremely easy problem-solving challenges — might raise some alarms. The interface tutorial is appreciated, because “Create’s” pop-up menu system most definitely requires a period of acclimation before it feels natural. But the extreme ease of the early challenges is enough to ignite concern that this might be nothing more than a “Machine” imitator that’s afraid to challenge people.

Don’t worry; it gets better. “Create” gradually introduces challenges that award players based on their ability to solve multiple objectives or complete a single objective with style or by using as few objects as possible. Every completed challenge introduces new objects into the sandbox, and eventually, those objects introduce new physical properties (magnetism, for instance), combine to form more complex objects (two wheels plus a girder equals a makeshift car), and introduce properties that are harder to predict (a pinball bumper) or come alive in ways that must be harnessed toward completing the goal (rockets, missile-firing tanks). The puzzles reflect the increased complexity through increasingly weird objectives with more variables in play, and “Create” starts handing out some really good brainteasers halfway through the second (of 10) zone.

Though the pop-up menu system isn’t the most streamlined of interfaces (tip: use the D-Pad to rotate and resize the objects, even if that’s never communicated in the tutorial), navigating through “Create” is a mostly pleasant experience. The game makes trial and error a frustration-free endeavor, allowing players to test a solution at any time during its construction and instantly sending them back to the edit screen with a single button press and no loading. A weird but oddly enjoyable decorating component lets armchair designers dress up different zones just for the heck of it, and players can drop objects into each zone (and even the title screen) and freely test their properties toward whatever purpose they please.

That last touch of experimental freedom leads into the one page “Create” borrows — and borrows well — from the “LittleBigPlanet” playbook: challenge creation and sharing. Players can devise their own problems using the existing zones or a free-play sandbox, and as long as the problem has a workable solution, they can upload it and share it with friends, strangers or both. Players also can share solutions to the game’s built-in levels and even redecoration blueprints, and a Community Challenge feature tasks players with submitting creative contraptions according to a theme in hopes of getting their design in the game’s Hall of Fame. The online features work flawlessly, and provided “Create” develops its deserved following, they should give the game some very long legs going forward.

(Note: These online features aren’t available in the Wii version.)


Gran Turismo 5
For: Playstation 3
From: Polyphony Digital/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics)

Years of delays in the supposed name of perfection have elevated “Gran Turismo 5” to a legendary status it never really earned. Polyphony Digital’s all-world driving simulation franchise is marked as much by stubbornness as it is by obsessiveness, and if you’re surprised that the latest entrant hasn’t evolved like it probably should have, it’s your own fault.

That isn’t a blanket indictment of “GT5’s” quality so much as a reminder that Polyphony’s baby plays by its own rules even when it bends to convention. The overdue introduction of vehicle damage ranges from invisible to ineffectual. The menu interface, particularly when sorting through different events with different entrance requirements, is supremely user-unfriendly. And the artificial intelligence remains oxymoronic, with A.I.-controlled cars following a predefined path and reacting to players only when the laws of physics make it impossible not to.

The obsessive attention to detail also takes a hit when the boasting gets broken down. Yes, there are 1,000 cars in “GT5’s” garage, but 18 of them are different versions of the Mazda RX-7, and 41 more are Nissan Skylines. And while the top 200 of those cars are meticulously recreated, the remaining 800 are less impressive, with exterior ornaments textured in and engine sounds and interiors that aren’t necessarily authentic. Car fanatics likely can appreciate the differences between different years of the same model, but casual players may wonder why they unlocked yet another Toyota Celica — or why, even though the game looks phenomenal when a race is in motion, some cars just look “off” when sitting idle.

But here’s that reminder again: “GT5” is aimed squarely at people who dearly love cars — to the degree that laboriously sorting through the parameters of seemingly indistinguishable vehicles is a cherished feature instead of a chore — and it holds no concern for those who come away feeling alienated by the labyrinth of menus, nitpicks and unintuitive progress roadblocks that await.

For that first crowd, though, there is a ton of content here. The A-Spec Mode houses all the cups and traditional career progression, while B-Spec lets players try their hand at coaching instead of driving. The License Test challenges return, but in a series first, “GT5” ties every mode into a single, persistent experience system that lets players go straight to entering cups without having to pass any license tests first.

The Special Events mode is “GT5’s” most interesting new feature, as it sends players into challenges designed around go karting, NASCAR, rally racing and even the “Top Gear” test track. The game’s attention to detail with regard to each discipline’s unique physics and demands is really impressive, but the event designs (sometimes you get races, other times some absurdly strict tests) are hit and miss.

“GT5” also brings the series fully online for the first time, though this, by Polyphony’s own admission, remains a work in progress. Some light social networking features allow friends to gift each other cars and post messages to each other’s walls, and the lobby system lets players set up races by whatever rules they prefer. But other promised features such as matchmaking aren’t yet present, and some heavy network traffic has made accessing the game’s servers a game of chance so far. When everything is up and running, though, the actual act of racing online is a pretty smooth one.


Donkey Kong Country Returns
For: Wii
From: Retro Studios/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

If you played any of the three “Donkey Kong Country” games on the Super NES during the mid-1990s, the surface of the aptly-named “Donkey Kong Country Returns” should look exactly as you envision it would.

Superficially, it’s a natural evolution. The “DKC” trilogy produced three of the better sidescrolling action games on the SNES, and while the faux-3D graphics have aged, the games still play well. “Returns” puts 15 years of graphical and technological advancements to good use: Everything is modeled in real 3D despite the mostly two-dimensional perspective, and the levels can twist around and play with space in ways those old games couldn’t possibly do. But the core action — running, jumping, ground-pounding, barrel blasting and even riding the mine cart and Rambi the rhino — hasn’t changed.

Though a little more risk-taking wouldn’t have hurt, “Returns” at least does the next best thing by putting those familiar ideas to some pretty clever use in environments that, thanks to technology, are much livelier than their SNES counterparts. Some stretches of action operate on dual planes of perspective, and levels frequently feature outside forces (a trigger-happy pirate ship, a ridable whale, lava geysers) that change the tenor of the action without introducing new controls or gimmicks. Every level has hidden rooms with bonus collectables, and “Returns” rewards the truly ambitious by unlocking fiendishly difficult bonus levels in each world in which players find everything.

Finding all those bonuses is by no means an easy task. In fact, simply seeing “Returns” to its conclusion wouldn’t be a guarantee if Nintendo hadn’t included an optional feature that allows the overwhelmed to “skip” levels by letting the computer finish up for them. For all the right reasons, this is a tough game that, true to its predecessors, demands real skill from its players and only holds hands as a last, slightly demoralizing resort.

But “Returns” is challenging for the wrong reasons too. Mid-level checkpoints are often placed in strange spots, requiring players to replay simple, lengthy stretches of certain levels just to get back to the tricky part that tripped them up. Sometimes, those checkpoints outfit players with Diddy Kong, who rides on Donkey’s back, wears a jetpack that makes jumping easier, and gives players two extra life bars. But sometimes it doesn’t, and players have to replay those stretches without him and hope Donkey’s two bars and regular jump are enough.

But the game’s worst offense is its wedging of motion controls where they don’t belong. Players shake the Wii remote to make Donkey Kong roll forward, bash the ground or blow, and the game determines which action to execute based on whether Donkey Kong is standing still, ducking or moving. But sometimes Donkey Kong’s momentum keeps him moving after players stop moving him, and that’s enough for a remote shake to send him rolling off a cliff instead of bonking the enemy in front of him. In a game as frantic as this, that’s a “mistake” you will make, and considering how many buttons go unused, it’s a mind-boggling oversight that adds unneeded aggravation to a game that’s tricky enough already.

That “Returns” remains worth playing in spite of these aggravations is a testament to all it does right versus all it does wrong. And you need not suffer alone: “Returns” offers two-player local co-op play, though it doesn’t address the disparity between the player who gets to control Diddy’s jetpack and the one who is stuck with Donkey’s plain-jane jump.


Spelunker HD
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Tozai/Irem
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $10

Not everybody played “Spelunker” when it debuted on the NES in 1987, but those who did have a special remembrance of the cave-dwelling platforming game that was fiendishly, unforgivingly difficult from its very first minute. “Spelunker HD” swaps in a cute new look and gives the iconic (for “Spelunker” fans, anyway) music a jazzy makeover. But while the ability to save progress takes a little of the edge off, the absurd lack of forgiveness is exactly as it was 23 years ago, and it isn’t there by accident or because the developers don’t recognize how cruel it can be. Instead of striving for accessibility and pleading for wider appeal, “Spelunker HD” feels like a joyous celebration of “Spelunker’s” difficulty, and for fans and conquerers of that nasty old game, the spotless return to that world is supremely fulfilling. “Spelunker HD” instead modernizes itself in other, better ways: There are 100 new levels (the original game had six, to put that number into perspective), and the game now allows up to four (splitscreen) or six (online) players to share the same cavern as they work together or complete to collect the most treasure. The new look and sound nicely toe the line between contemporary and deferential, but “Spelunker HD” lets players opt for the original music and graphical style (retrofitted new environments and all) if they prefer to suffer like it’s 1987.