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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Games 4/24/12: Trials Evolution, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings EE (360), Devil May Cry HD Collection, StarDrone Extreme

Trials Evolution
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: RedLynx/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)
Price: $15

Purely in terms of how certain returning features relate to their counterparts in 2009’s “Trials HD,” the modestly-titled “Trials Evolution” is very aptly named.

As a description for the total package, though, it’s comically understated.

Superficially, “Evolution” indeed looks like the evolution of the same formula that made “Excitebike” so cherished on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s a motorbike game. It’s set on a plane that’s not quite 2D but not quite 3D either. The controls — one trigger for gas, another for brakes, and the left stick to shift the weight and angle of the bike — are as elementary as ever.

But “Evolution” (like “HD” before it) is a whole different animal with regard to its obsessive attention to the physics of speed, weight and angles. Even the most minor applications of gas, brakes and tilt can spell the difference between a brilliant run and a disastrous one. You’ll receive a track’s bronze medal simply for finishing it, but if you want the gold (zero crashes, a reasonably fast completion time), you’ll have to continually manage all three facets to maneuver through some wildly creative obstacle courses. (“Evolution’s” track designs are, predictably, a cut above “HD’s” in terms of scope and imagination.)

If you played “HD,” you already know these basics, and you likely also remember how quickly that game’s difficulty spiked from zero to infinity.

This isn’t a problem “Evolution” has. Getting golds on easy- and medium-difficulty tracks remains challenging, but the insane bike gymnastics required to even finish many of “HD’s” medium-difficulty tracks are reserved solely for the highest echelon of “Evolution’s” difficulty tier.

Even if you were good enough to handle “HD’s” tracks and didn’t need a more gradual difficulty climb, this likely is a positive development. “Evolution’s” Xbox Live integration makes competing with friends’ times even more fun than chasing those medals, and you need your friends to finish those tracks before they can offer up a high score to conquer.

Besides, “Evolution” won’t run out of nasty challenges until its large community runs out of players.

For starters, you can race other players this time around. “Evolution’s” multiplayer mode (four players, online or offline) is a glorified ghost race insofar that you can’t collide with the other three riders on the track, and it’s a literal ghost race on certain elaborate tracks that have terrain-altering switches each rider must be able to activate separately to keep things fair. But it’s still a race to the finish line against three other riders you at least can partially see, and that’s all it needs to achieve the intense air of a multiplayer battle where one mistake can make or break your finish position.

“Evolution’s” multiplayer is presented in a circuit-style format — a collection of races, with the best combined performance taking top honors — and includes a persistent upgrade track that’s good for unlocking new gear for your rider.

But “Evolution’s” real showpiece is the upgraded track editor, which no longer is merely a track editor. As it was in “HD,” the editor is accessible enough to grasp despite being so powerful that RedLynx itself used it to build tracks. The sharing interface is night-and-day improved, with numerous means of filtering creations based on popularity and difficulty, and every track has a global leaderboard to attack.

But in addition to offering a fresh handful of weird single-player minigames in which you launch yourself like a javelin or replace the bike with skis, “Evolution” blows the editor’s doors off and lets you design minigames of your own. User-created events already exist where you can shoot hoops, go bowling and fire a steerable cannonball, and RedLynx itself built a first-person shooter. There’s no telling what will materialize once players truly get acclimated with the tools, but it’s a safe bet that “Evolution” won’t run out of new content to discover anytime soon.


The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Enhanced Edition
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: CD Projekt/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs)
Price: $60

If it’s possible for anything to emerge triumphant from the fallout over “Mass Effect 3’s” roundly disappointing (and, according to no less than the Better Business Bureau, misleading) ending, you’re looking right at it. Save for Bethesda’s games, no game anywhere gives you the power to carve your destiny as measurably as does “The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.” And even Bethesda’s endgames don’t pay off on the choices you make as satisfyingly as this one does.

That’s a credit to “Kings” taking the concept of role-playing to a certain limit but not past it. Though dauntingly thick with side quests and opportunities to explore freely, “Kings” still subtly guides players through a narrative that’s more Bioware (cutscenes, dialogue trees, significant story decisions that fork the road) than Bethesda. You’re playing as Geralt, the titular Witcher, and while his destiny rests in your hands, his personality and physical makeup come pre-designed (and for good reason).

Within that structure, though, things can get wonderfully messy.

“Kings” usually tips its hand when you’re at a crossroads that can shift the makeup of the story and the world at large. But the charismatically blurry lines that comprise the personalities of Geralt and his supporting cast — imagine “Game of Thrones'” irreverent take on fantasy instead of your typical straight-faced and straight-laced role-playing game — allow those crossroads to cloud the discrepancy between doing the right thing and doing the desirable thing. Consequently, it isn’t a question of if some seemingly innocuous decision you make early leaves a surprising mark later, but when and how often it happens. From “Kings'” structure to its personality to the respect it pays to player intelligence and maturity, this is the new standard-bearer.

Though not easily mastered (which may be great or distressing news depending on your stance on hand-holding), the act of actually playing the game is similarly enjoyable.

“Kings'” third-person combat finds a happy Western RPG medium. It isn’t as fast and smooth as “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning’s” action game-style combat, but it’s in the same ballpark, and it trades in some of that finesse for an extra level of depth and danger.

Specifically, success in combat entails vigorous management of your inventory as well as your adversaries. Where “Amalur” lets you hack away with abandon, “Kings” quickly delivers smart and powerful enemies who will punish you if you don’t play defense and bring a game plan into battle. Geralt’s arsenal includes traps and fortifications as well as swords and daggers, and establishing them as a first line of defense is — along with executing optimally-timed dodges, blocks and counters — incredibly valuable. If you want to have a healing potion handy in battle, you’ll need to mix it yourself ahead of time, and if you want your blades at their sharpest, you’d best oil them up before walking into a fight. “Kings” provides a seemingly bottomless sea of weapons, clothing, special ingredients and combat strategies, but it’s entirely your job to put the pieces together and survive once the world opens up.

Happily, the most notable additions to this enhanced edition — which arrives 11 months after “Kings” originally appeared on the PC — work in the service of user-friendliness. Along with a brief but invaluable in-game tutorial that lays out the combat basics, “Kings” ships with a 90-page handbook that exhaustively walks through every facet of the game. The handbook is loaded with spoilers and should be regarded as a last resort if the bevy of quests and menus are threatening to chase you way entirely, but it more than addresses the grievances players had about the PC version being completely user-unfriendly.


Devil May Cry HD Collection
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40

On the precipice of a full-scale “Devil May Cry” reboot, Capcom has given in to another popular trend by rereleasing the series’ three Playstation 2 entrants in high definition.

Or rather, it kind of does that, if you don’t count the parts of “Devil May Cry” and “Devil May Cry 2” that remain in slightly blurry fullscreen. The standard-definition content is relegated to menus and cutscenes, and all gameplay in all three games is presented in widescreen with aged but HD-friendly graphics. But the strange first impression this oversight gives is a unintentional sign of things to come if you fully plunder “Devil May Cry HD Collection’s” depths.

Regardless of your memories of it, the original “DMC” — which, in 2001, broke ground and established a blueprint for contemporary action games like “God of War” and “Ninja Gaiden” — has aged considerably.

Conceived initially as a “Resident Evil” game, “DMC” doesn’t quite shake the suffocating fixed cameras and clumsy cause-and-effect puzzles that had already begun wearing out their welcome 11 years ago. Replacing “Evil’s” flaccid combat with a fluid arsenal of melee and ranged attacks was enough to turn heads and reorient the confused trajectory 3D action games were riding back then, but by today’s standards — and even compared to “Devil May Cry 3,” which is this collection’s jewel — Dante’s original repertoire is limited and stunted in its dexterity.

“DMC2,” released in 2003, was panned even then, and it holds steady as this collection’s undisputed dud. Signs of things to come are everywhere: Dante’s skillset is larger and more dynamic, the game’s areas are larger, and the fixed camera is slightly less ridiculous in terms of triggering claustrophobic reactions. But the original game’s personality has vanished, and the larger areas and arsenal are wasted on some demoralizingly drab level designs and enemy arrangements. “DMC” wasn’t necessarily masterful in either regard, but “DMC2” isn’t even trying.

That leaves the third game, and if there’s a reason to revisit this collection at all, 2005’s “DMC3” most assuredly is it.

It’s here where Capcom catches and passes the games for which it initially paved the way: Dante’s combat is fluid in a way that remains fresh even seven years later, his personality returns in force, the level and enemy designs justify the full prioritization of combat over puzzle solving, and even the fixed cameras feel somewhat (though not completely) dynamic.

Beyond the dated graphics, “DMC3” is the one game here that can hang in 2012 without leaning on nostalgic crutches to do so. It also remains better realized than HD-native “Devil May Cry 4,” which looks considerably prettier but regresses in all other respects. The most pronounced ding against “DMC3” was its completely ruthless difficulty, but a special edition — which is the version that’s included here — addressed that with a softer additional difficulty setting. (Masochists, fear not: The original difficulty remains intact as well.)

As a total package, “Collection” is pretty no-frills. The three games are walled off within the disc to the point where if you start one, you have to reboot the entire collection to get back to the collection’s menu screen. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions of the game naturally come with achievements and trophies to respectively unlock, but there’s little else in the way of bonus content beyond some art galleries. Surprisingly, “Collection” doesn’t even include a trailer of the rebooted “DmC: Devil May Cry,” which releases later this year and (so far) looks primed to justify Capcom’s tap of the reset button.


StarDrone Extreme
For: Playstation Vita (via Playstation Network)
From: Beatshapers/Orb Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $4

To really understand “StarDrone Extreme” is to see it in action rather than read about it on paper, because while it combines things we’ve all seen before (a touch of pinball, a touch of “Breakout” and a touch of “Spider-Man”-style web slinging physics), putting into words how it all comes together doesn’t do justice to the unwieldy but very satisfying way these elements collide. Though other objectives factor in, the fundamental goal in “Extreme” is to manage those physics in a way that gets your ship around each of the 60 levels and clears the area of collectible pieces (or, later on, enemies) in as little time as possible. The catch is that you don’t control the ship directly, but instead use objects in the level to sling and bounce it around indirectly. Those levels are loaded with enough obstacles (some dangerous, some not) to make getting around, much less quickly, easier said than done. For the impatient, it may be too unwieldy to even enjoy. But for those who love obsessively replaying levels in hopes of shaving a second off their time and achieving leaderboard supremacy, this is pretty much bliss. The truly bold will appreciate the clever ability to adjust “Extreme’s” speed on a 10-point scale, which makes ever faster times possible for those steady enough to handle the spike in recklessness. Save for a few Vita-specific levels, most of “Extreme” is ported from last year’s PS3 version of “StarDrone.” The good news there is that the PS3 and Vita share a cross-compatible leaderboard. The bad news? “Extreme” inexplicably excludes “StarDrone’s” button controls in favor of touch-only options. They work great — arguably better than the buttons, even — but why deny players a choice they previously had?

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 4/3/12: Kid Icarus: Uprising, Ninja Gaiden 3, Closure

Kid Icarus: Uprising
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Project Sora/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $40

Are you willing to suffer for your hobby? Because “Kid Icarus: Uprising” may be the best game you’ll ever have to endure literal pain to enjoy.

It’s also the wildest reinvention of an inconic Nintendo character since Mario started talking and running around in three dimensions.

Though it resurrects the same characters and themes that have been in hibernation since the original “Kid Icarus” games came and went more than two decades ago, “Uprising” is otherwise a wholly different animal. Those older games were slightly methodical 2D platformers. “Uprising” arrives in full 3D — both dimensionally and stereoscopically — and is anything but meticulous.

When Pit (that’s you) is in flight, “Uprising” is a high-flying on-rails shooter. The circle pad controls Pit’s lateral and longitudinal movement, but he continually soars forward by himself. The stylus and touchscreen handle his targeting reticule, and the L button allows him to fire his weapon either rapidly (hold it down) or powerfully (lay off, let it charge, press L to unleash).

Having to balance those three disparate inputs is a bit dicey at any speed, and “Uprising’s” action doesn’t roll by at any speed. It’s fantastically fast and — depending on where you set the difficulty via a clever slider that pays more rewards and unlocks more secret areas the higher you set it — quite challenging.

Holding the 3DS and balancing those inputs is such a clumsy proposition, in fact, that Nintendo included a plastic stand that does the holding part for you. It’s an amusing solution that makes “Uprising” the most unportable portable game since Nintendo’s Virtual Boy days, but it’s an effective one.

Got all that? Good, because when Pit touches down on the ground during the second half of these levels, things get even harrier.

For the most part, the inputs remain the same. But when Pit has his feet on the ground, you exercise full, 360-degree control over them. L still fires and the touchscreen still aims. But having full range of motion also necessitates a need to control the camera independently of Pit. “Uprising” maps that to the touchscreen as well, only via brisk (and therefore imprecise) swipes instead of the drags used for aiming. The line between making Pit amble (slow push on the circle pad) and dash (quick push) forward is similarly imperfect, especially when an accidental dash sends him over an edge.

Harnessing this control scheme, even with the stand’s considerable help, is awkward in short bursts and very literally painful during extended plays. “Uprising’s” isn’t as fast on the ground as it is in the air, but it’s comparable, and it’s crying out for a second circle pad to balance the load. (Bafflingly, while “Uprising” supports Nintendo’s Circle Pad Pro attachment, it’s only for left-handed support and not to enable dual-stick controls.)

And yet, “Uprising’s” action is fast and exciting enough to make the pain worth it. The level design is insane, and the enemy and boss designs run the gamut from ginormous to comically weird. Pit’s story, which plays out with full voice acting in the second screen while you play uninterrupted, is engaging and sharply funny. It’s also lengthy and — thanks to a scoring system, the aforementioned slider and a massive array of discoverable weapons, gear and special powers — highly replayable.

Amazingly, “Uprising” even has a multiplayer option (six players, local wireless or online) with lone wolf deathmatch and a clever team deathmatch option in which teams share a single lifebar. You can bring any weapon you’ve discovered into multiplayer matches, but the better your weapon, the more damage your team’s lifebar suffers when you die. The action is, predictably, complete bedlam — imagine six people dealing with that control scheme and each other at once — but as an amusing throw-in for a content-loaded game, it suffices just fine.


Ninja Gaiden 3
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Tecmo Koei
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)
Price: $60

The more credit you give “Ninja Gaiden 3” for respecting your ability to play it, the likelier it is to make you rue the thought.

That alone makes “NG3” — a beautiful, blazingly fast action game that’s also a descendent of one of the most perfect action games ever made — a crushing letdown.

Superficially, “NG3” looks a lot like 2004’s “Ninja Gaiden,” a game so cherished that Tecmo keeps reissuing it (most recently, for the Vita in February). Ryu Hayabusa (that’s you) remains one of gaming’s most agile action heroes. The places you’ll visit are beautiful and diverse, and while many of the enemies you face look like reskinned versions of enemies you saw already, the bosses — from a T-Rex to a giant witch whose body becomes a level unto itself — are satisfactorily outrageous.

In flashes, “NG3” also fights like the original “Gaiden,” which treated every single enemy as a significant danger and provided the ingredients — a healthy offensive and defensive arsenal for Ryu, some cunning intelligence for his enemies — to turn the most ordinary fight into a showdown more tense than many games’ boss encounters.

But those flashes — where you’re evading a pattern of attack in perfect time and countering to turn the tide — are fleeting. “NG3’s” tendency to crowd every encounter with roughly six to 10 mindless grunts leaves little room for showdowns, and respecting your enemies’ intelligence simply leads to cheap, frustrating barrages of knockdowns where the game effectively strips control from you. You’re better off just mashing the attack and evade buttons mindlessly and relentlessly — which is about as much fun as it sounds — because that’s all your enemies are doing to you.

The result looks spectacular, in part because “NG3” takes a page from other games and uses interactive cutscenes to add flair to Ryu’s kills. But the satisfaction of a grueling fight intelligently won — the main pillar of the original “Gaiden” and, to a dampened degree, its sequel — is just about gone this time around.

Boss fights, sadly, rarely fare better. There is a gem or two, and the one-on-one format certainly provides some badly-needed focus to the action, but sloppiness and repeat encounters abound all the same. More than not, the same rule of engagement still applies: Give a boss enemy’s attack pattern more credit than it deserves, and prepare to get burned and just mash away on the next (and likely successful) attempt.

Elsewhere, “NG3” takes steps forward and backward to ultimately settle comfortably into mediocrity. A surprising attempt to tell a more personal Ryu Hayabusa story results in the usual incoherence, but the presence of one character lets the story to fulfill its mission to partial effect. As bloodthirsty ninjas go, Ryu’s a pretty nice guy. Who knew?

The not-entirely-welcome infusion of interactive cutscenes and quick time events has a similarly mixed effect. “NG3” looks great when Ryu’s cutting a helicoptor to pieces while it’s in flight, but it screeches to a halt every time you have to laboriously press the triggers to climb a wall. When did simply pushing up on the joystick stop being enough?

“NG3” also marks the series’ first hand at online multiplayer, and the result likely matches your expectations for it. The solo or co-op Ninja Trials mode presents no-frills missions that load up the screen with enough enemies to bring down the framerate, while Clan Battle (eight players) lets you cut your friends to pieces via team deathmatch. “NG3” bakes in a leveling and upgrades system to encourage replayability, but the sloppy gameplay that ails the storyline also persists here. And without that story to pull it along, the novelty runs out pretty quickly.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Eyebrow Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $15

If it’s in the dark, it doesn’t exist in “Closure,” a deviously clever 2D sidescroller that once again proves all the brilliant ideas for rethinking 2D games aren’t yet taken. In “Closure,” the vast majority of a level exists in complete blackness, and anything that exists in blackness doesn’t exist at all. The object is to employ the available light sources — some static, some maneuverable like adjustable floodlights, some you can push around or carry with you — to design a tenable path to the exit. If the path in front of you is entirely blackened, you need to illuminate it, lest you fall into a bottomless pit of nothingness. And if walls block the exit from all sides, you must suppress the light to make one of those walls disappear. Sounds easy, right? Sure. But “Closure’s” method of terrain manipulation represents an abstract new way to get from A to B, and success frequently entails disobeying age-old 2D gaming truths and forcing yourself to think along dramatically different new lines. Naturally, just as the new normal settles in, “Closure’s” 80-plus levels grow increasingly labyrinthine, with multi-level cause-and-effect puzzles, moving parts you can and cannot control, and keys and other objects you must protect from the abyss while also watching your own step. Fortunately, wicked though “Closure” can get, the process of conquering it is aggravation-free. There’s no timer rushing you along, and if you fall or have to reset the level, it restarts immediately without fuss. The pleasant demeanor extends to the visual presentation, which resembles a black-and-white woodcut illustration come charmingly alive. Monochromatic games are en vogue right now, but “Closure’s” stab at it is a fresh departure from its dour counterparts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Games 3/20/12: Yakuza: Dead Souls, Crush3d, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, Motorstorm RC

Yakuza: Dead Souls
For: Playstation 3
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol)
Price: $60

It has always taken a special kind of person to truly appreciate the “Yakuza” series, which reengineers flaws into points of endearment like few (if any) other series can.

“Yakuza: Dead Souls” takes that bizarre two-way affection into a whole new arena, but it never loses itself in doing so. An already confluence of brawling and storytelling goes slightly nuts with the addition of zombies, firearms and more sustained action than has typically been present in these games, but everything that comprised those earlier games — including the weirdly wonderful tug-o-war between archaic and charming — remains intact.

“Souls,” perhaps obviously, isn’t central to the “Yakuza” canon, which up to now has crammed several television series’ worth of violence, drama, comedy, family feuds, criminal dynasties, troublemakers and complete weirdos into four numbered games and a spinoff that released only in Japan. “Souls” takes “Yakuza 4’s” setting and premise — once again dropping you into the shoes of four deeply unique main characters — and tells a what-if story in which the undead clog the streets and the usual friends and enemies enact a moratorium on their squabbles.

Along with the setting and characters, most everything else with which “Yakuza” is synonymous returns in “Souls.” In safe zones walled off (for now) from monsters, you’ll find a new assortment of strange people to meet and assist in side stories. Hilariously weird minigames and diversions abound. The random troublemakers who pick fights in the street have disappeared (perhaps a nod to your new shared enemy), but when you’re battling zombies, the full brunt of “Yazuka’s” brawling controls — from suplexing zombies to using everything from bats to bicycles as weapons — lay at your disposal. As always, it’s a fast and exciting 3D answer to the great 2D brawlers that thrived in the 1990s.

But while hitting a zombie in the face with a coffee table is effective in a pinch, you’ll need some real firepower when “Souls” drops you into an area crawling with several dozen undead.

Enter guns and grenades — and what a strange entrance it is. “Souls” crams three flavors of shooting controls into its existing gameplay with reckless disregard for elegance, and their respective effectiveness is inversely proportional to pretty much every third-person shooter made since roughly 2004.

Whereas holding the L2 trigger to aim down the sights of a gun increases precision in most shooters, it’s generally a nightmare here — sabotaged by a camera unfit to handle it, as well as Sega’s baffling decision to map aiming to the left instead of right stick. (You can’t move while aiming this way.) The method is handy when sniping from a distance, but laughably worthless otherwise.

A middle option, wherein you hold L1 to strafe and automatically fire at enemies in your line of sight, works a little better — except when pressing L1 causes you to strafe facing the wrong way, unable to turn around, even if you’re facing the right way when you press it. It happens randomly, but also regularly.

Ultimately, the best (and, by an factor of 10, most fun) way to mow down zombies is to not even aim at all. As you run through a room hammering on the shoot button, your character shoots whichever zombie is nearest by in his field of view. You can turn on a dime and clear a room in the blink of an eye, especially once you unlock a visually spectacular special ability that lets you use gas lines, circuit boxes and even loose steel girders as bullet-activated hazards.

Played this way, the shooting is fast, exciting, effortless and silly in exactly the right way — in other words, a perfect complement to everything else “Yakuza” has done so wonderfully for so long.


For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Zoë Mode/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $35

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about “Fez,” an upcoming, long-in-development puzzle/platforming game that literally turns the 2D platformer on its side.

But five years ago, an unheralded game named “Crush” did it first — and incredibly well — on the Playstation Portable. “Crush3d” takes steps forward and backward in remaking that game for a new system and (hopefully) new audience. But everything it did so brilliantly is preserved and, five years on, as clever and malevolent as ever.

(As a sidebar, the original “Crush” is available for $10 on the Playstation Network for the Vita and PSP. The more you know.)

The object of “Crush3d’s” 40 levels, as explained by a surprisingly chatty storyline, is to collect enough marbles to open a portal to the exit and then reach that exit. But accessing the marbles and the portal isn’t a simple matter of running and jumping over to them, because they typically sit impossibly out of reach.

Instead, you must rotate the level itself, turning it on its side or even vertically so that you’re viewing it from above. And after doing that, you have to “crush” it and flatten the 3D arrangement into a 2D one. Flattening the perspective connects platforms that exist nowhere near each other in the 3D space, and once they’re in close proximity according to your new perspective, you can hop from one to the next like they were next to each other the whole time. Uncrush the level, and suddenly you’re on a completely different plane.

All of that perspective manipulation transforms a completely pedestrian platformer into a beastly mental challenge, and “Crush3d” very quickly makes you work for it if you want to perfect a level (all marbles collected, the optional trophy and concept art piece discovered, and no hints used). Before long, the difficulty curve sharpens with the addition of pushable obstacles, moving platforms, giant cockroaches and blocks that behave differently based on color and dimension.

If that sounds intimidating, mission accomplished. But “Crush3d,” to its credit, doesn’t antagonize unnecessarily by throwing up a time limit or penalizing your score if you take your time solving a level. You might resort to some trial and error just for the sake of doing so when things really get elaborate and you reach your wits’ end, but unless that cockroach is giving chase, you’re free to take your time exploring a level without the nagging sensation that “Crush3d” is rushing you through the problem-solving process.

With that said, if time and crush limits appeal to your masochistic side, a 40-level Trophy Mode — wherein you must complete a level using only so many crushes, and within a par time — is available as a complement to the main story. Finding a trophy in the campaign unlocks the corresponding level in this mode, so keep your eyes peeled.)

“Crush3d’s” gameplay and puzzle design will look wholly familiar to those familiar with “Crush” on the PSP. Stylistically, though, it’s another story.

The game’s use of stereoscopic 3D is excellent — no surprise given the emphasis on perspective perception, but worth noting all the same. But “Crush’s” unique visual style — dystopian but also colorful and silly, with some likably weird graphic novel panels bringing a grouchy but whimsical story to life — has been shelved in favor of something a little less exciting. “Crush3d’s” presentation is pleasant, with brighter backdrops and a friendlier (though not saccharine) makeover for the characters, but it doesn’t stand out the way “Crush’s” look does even to this day.


Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Slant Six/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $60

If you assembled a focus group of people who’ve never played a “Resident Evil” game and tasked them with designing the next one, “Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City” very well might be what they conceive by day’s end.

That isn’t damning criticism so much as faint praise, because “City” at least fulfills its unimaginative ideals with competency. It holds no candle to a traditional “RE” game. But as a cover-based, co-op-capable third-person squad shooter that hits every bullet point an online, experience points-driven, competitive/cooperative shooter needs to hit? Sure, why not.

With that said, the best thing about “City’s” cover shooter ambitions might be how it largely abandons them early in the campaign, which you can play alone with three A.I. partners, online with three human partners, or some mix therein. (Sadly, there’s no local co-op option.)

“City” drops you into the shoes of an Umbrella Corporation-appointed cleanup squad, tasked with removing all traces of its involvement in sparking the Raccoon City zombie apocalypse. In other words, you finally get to play out the saga’s formative episodes from the bad guy’s side.

Without spoiling specifics, the first leg of this PR campaign pits you against government soldiers who are armed both with guns and intelligence. (Hence, the need to fight from cover.)

The results are passable but sloppy. There’s no button to stick to cover: “City” does it automatically, which means it sometimes doesn’t when you need it to and does when you don’t. That, and the occasional unresponsiveness that happens when you try swapping weapons, detract from a control scheme that otherwise covers the basics adequately.

Fortunately — and inevitably, because they’re “RE’s” reason for being — the zombies indeed rush in. And once they do, “City” becomes 10 percent cover shooter and 90 percent run and gun.

The change in tempo doesn’t fully nullify “City’s” shortcomings, especially when it descends into chaos during mission-ending objectives that cram levels with zombies and soldiers galore. But the action is lively, and it’s fun to take on the zombie horde with degrees of weaponry and dexterity that wouldn’t make sense in a more traditional “RE” game.

As co-op experiences go, “City” is once again satisfactory. Setting up foursomes is easy, and teams that protect (and, in the event of a bad zombie fight, disinfect) each other will find those aforementioned descents into chaos much easier to bear.

If, however, you play alone, be prepared to fight alone. A.I. partners can kill a zombie or two, but they provide shoddy protection and can’t revive you like you can them. (If you turn zombie or become incapacitated, the game halts and whisks you back to the nearest checkpoint.) Cold though it sounds, your A.I. partners are best used as bait while you flank enemies from behind.

Other bullet points abound. The campaign is roughly six hours long, but with six very different (and separately upgradable) character classes to play as, there’s incentive to go play it again. Stats persist across the whole game, so you can apply your unlocked perks to “City’s” competitive multiplayer suite as well.

The competitive multiplayer (eight players, online only) features “RE”-flavored variants of team deathmatch, capture the flag and territory control. A Heroes Mode, meanwhile, lets you play as famous faces from games’ past and take sides in the standoff between Umbrella and the government.

Again, the action is fun but customary — albeit with a wrinkle. The multiplayer arenas are crawling with zombies, and once again, they’re the common enemy of both opposing forces. Having to manage boatloads of A.I. enemies while also outwitting more formidable human opponents — who are dealing with the same zombies while taking you on — adds some serious (and, unlike the chaos mentioned earlier, welcome) bedlam to what otherwise is pretty standard four-on-four action.


Motorstorm RC
For: Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita
From: Evolution Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10 on PS3, free on Vita for a limited time

If you ever imagined how amusing it might be to see “Motorstorm’s” hulking off-road vehicles shrunk down to RC car form, just wait until you see one of them flip over and land haplessly on its plastic back. To an arguable fault — at least, if you come in expecting a normal racing game — “Motorstorm RC” takes the gimmick and runs wild with it. The tracks — which “RC” displays from an overhead perspective a la “Super Off Road” or “R.C. Pro-Am” — are miniaturized, toy-car replicas of courses from all four previous “Motorstorm” games, and the vehicles’ handling physics are appropriately light but (like an RC car) just a little bit stubborn in the handling department. “RC’s” default controls mimic those of a remote control, with one stick (or R2 trigger on the PS3) handling the gas and brake while the other stick handles steering. You can customize these settings to use buttons if you wish. But if you want to beat your friends’ ghost times and get gold medal scores across all 48 events — a mix of races, time trials, overtake challenges and drift competitions — you’re advised to master the analog acceleration in order to tame that stubborn handling. Drive these vehicles like they’re regular video game cars, and you’ll pay dearly and regularly. Outside of four-player splitscreen on the PS3 version, “RC” lacks any kind of head-to-head multiplayer component. But its terrific integration of friends’ scores across all modes means you’re constantly competing with them anyway. Your scores and progress sync across both versions if you own both, and while the Vita version is free for a limited time thanks to Toyota, buying either version gets you the other version for free when it returns to regular price. How cool is that?

Games 3/13/12: MLB 12 The Show, Nicktoons MLB 3D, SSX, Jak and Daxter Collection, Journey

MLB 12 The Show
For: Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita
From: San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $60 for PS3, $40 for Vita, $80 for bundle (through April 10)

Nicktoons MLB 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Black Lantern Studios/2K Play
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $30

“MLB The Show” has been the undisputed king of baseball sims for at least five years running, and even though the 2012 edition’s additions rank on the weak side, this remains the case.

For the second straight year, a new pitching mechanic leads off the roster of changes. But in contrast to last year’s excellent Pure Analog system, the Pulse Pitching method relies too much on a gimmicky (and counterproductively touchy) timing mechanic that doesn’t really replicate the sensation of making a perfect pitch. With practice, it can be mastered, but “MLB12’s” other delivery methods — Pure Analog, Meter and Classic — are more fun. Fortunately, all remain available to use and tweak as needed via an extensive options screen.

“MLB12’s” flashiest new feature — Diamond Dynasty, available only in the PS3 version — attempts to replicate the success of EA Sports’ Ultimate Team modes, in which you assemble teams of players from virtual packs of cards you buy with in-game (or, of course, real) money. But while the seeds of compulsion are there if you’re willing to look for them, Diamond Dynasty clearly is a rookie effort — all over the place in terms of confusing interfaces, and spotty with how it facilitates team management and rewards.

The better modes — Season/Franchise, the role-playing Road to the Show — are available on both Vita and PS3, and those who purchase both versions can share the same cloud save file between both. If you love the game but never have time to play an entire season on your couch, the flexibility this entails may be the best news there is about this year’s game.

As per annual tradition, there’s more good news in between the lines. A brand-new baseball physics engine should quickly make its presence known to longtime players, and Road to the Show finally lets you begin your minor league career as a starter instead of on the bench. Tweaks have been made to the way A.I. managers and general managers handle lineups and trades, respectively, and every detail of the Marlins’ hideous new uniforms and home run structure has been recreated in exquisitely ugly detail.

Most importantly, none of the core fundamentals that have made this series the best in the business have been broken.

2K Sports’ simulation counterpart continues to lag behind and spin its glitchy, unrefined wheels. But 2K Play engineered a pleasant surprise last season with “NickToons MLB,” which took MLB players and teams, sprinkled in Nickelodeon characters and stadiums, and powered it with the terrifically fast (and surprisingly deep) engine that originally powered its outstanding “The Bigs” arcade baseball games.

Sadly, “Nicktoons MLB 3D” arrives on the Nintendo 3DS in alarmingly bad shape. The personality and players are there, as are the modes (season, tournament, minigames) and intricacies that made last year’s game more sophisticated than your typical arcade baseball game.

But where it matters most — gameplay — is where “3D” falls completely on its face. Instead of fast, it’s unflatteringly slow and prone to framerate stutters. And while the console version’s responsive controls made every facet of the game fun to play, “3D” can’t even get the basics right. The half-second lag between button press and the moment a batter actually swings the bat is impossible to forgive in a sport where timing is king. “3D” updates the rosters for 2012 and adds a few new ballparks and modes not found in the console versions, but the shoddy foundation completely invalidates whatever upside it has to offer.


For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics, mild violence)
Price: $60

When EA Sports first unveiled its rebooted “SSX” — complete with gritty, humorless overtones and “Call of Duty”-esque cutscenes to complement the otherwise familiar snowboarding action — the groans that met it halfway were fierce enough to send the studio into retool mode. Many months later, what we ultimately get — colorful, cheerful, loaded with impossible tricks and exaggerated physics — is a good approximation of how the first proper “SSX” game in nearly seven years should look, play and even innovate.

Except, of course, when it isn’t. Don’t holster that groan just yet.

Under the right conditions — on a wide mountain with room to trick creatively and in an event centered purely around racing or accumulating large trick scores — “SSX” sings as beautifully as ever. It’s blazing fast, stringing tricks (either with the new, stick-centric method or a scheme that approximates classic controls) is extremely easy, and exploiting the mountain for one incredible combo after another is blissfully fun.

But for every time “SSX” gets it perfectly right, there’s an instance where it inexplicably flubs it.

Some runs, including a handful that lead off the single-player campaign, take place in tight runs overcrowded with ramps and grindable lines. Botch one jump, and it’s too easy to ignite a chain where your rider is haplessly missing opportunity after opportunity while you simply wait for a clear patch of snow on which to rebuild the deck.

Much worse, however, is when “SSX” throws you down a mountain that’s plagued by bottomless drops around and even within it. Annoying though the chains of missed opportunities can be, they pale in comparison to the non-thrill of pulling a spectacular big-air trick, only to land on a ridge that slides you into a pit you couldn’t foresee when originally taking off. “SSX” includes a limited-use rewind feature, perhaps as penance for the cheapness of such turns of fortune. But even then, your momentum is disrupted and your score dinged.

Though the race and trick events are occasionally undermined by some unreasonably inhuman A.I. Opponents, “SSX” frustrates most during the new survival events, where the goal simply is to complete the run. Your rewinds are severely limited here, and the mountains tend to be severely broken. That means lots of cheap falls, which means lots of trial and error. Surviving these runs is a simple matter of memorizing the layout and riding sensibly instead of tricking out, but when was the last time you played “SSX” with a desire to ride sensibly and predictably?

Fortunately, should you be so inclined, you can enjoy most of “SSX’s” highlights without engaging its lowlights.

With respect to its story track, “SSX’s” showcase features are the Explore and Global events, both of which provide non-linear access to every mountain range and let you hop around the globe as you please. The in-game currency and experience points systems, which allow you to upgrade every playable rider and his or her gear, apply across all modes, so you aren’t missing anything (except some annoying cutscenes and chatter) by outright skipping the story.

The Explore and Global events also comprise “SSX’s” clever asynchronous multiplayer, which functions like a social network for “SSX” fans. You can challenge other players’ scores (which appear persistently in the menus or in ghost form), create Global Events that thousands of players can enter, form and track rivalries, and even drop geotags on a course and challenge other players to find a way to reach the spot where you left it. The longer it stays untouched, the bigger the payout.

The downside of asynchronous multiplayer? It comes at the expense of the traditional stuff. You might spot friends on the slopes if you’re playing the same Global Event at the same time, but if you’re hoping to race friends directly online — or even offline via splitscreen, as was an “SSX” staple once upon a time — you’re out of luck.


Jak and Daxter Collection
For: Playstation 3
From: Naughty Dog/Mass Media Inc./Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone/Teen (comic mischief, language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40 (games also available separately for $15 each via Playstation Network)

The advent of a “Jak and Daxter” HD collection was patently inevitable as soon as Sony began unleashing these terrific (and terrifically-priced) two- and three-packs of remastered Playstation 2 classics.

Here’s another shocker: “Jak and Daxter Collection” does excellent justice to the three games — originally released between 2001 and 2004 — that comprise it. The remastered games play perfectly, and though the original games’ colorful, Pixar-esque graphics have aged better than those of most PS2 titles, the benefits of a high-definition upgrade are obvious and considerable. The addition of stereoscopic 3D is sufficient for those with the technology to support it, and Playstation Network Trophy hunters will delight at the presence of lengthy trophy lists (each topped with a Platinum trophy) for each game.

If you lost track of “Jak and Daxter” back in the day, “Collection’s” biggest surprise may be just how much variety lies within — and not simply because Naughty Dog (best known today as the developer responsible for the “Uncharted” PS3 games) knew how to stuff a whole lot of creative level designs and ideas into these games. Though the level of variety certainly is copious, it’s the series’ gradual shift in tone and even genre that’s most striking.

The series’ debut, “Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy,” was a 3D platformer from the “Super Mario 64” school of colorful characters, collectables and levels that were open to discovery but still pretty self-contained. A voice cast and slight taste for vehicles set it somewhat apart, but it certainly felt right at home in its chosen genre.

“Jak II,” on the other hand, played as much like “Grand Theft Auto” as it did the original “Jak and Daxter.” Though not gratingly or humorlessly so, the tone was measurably darker, and the difficulty spiked accordingly. The open-world Haven City served as a massive hub at the heart of the game, and guns and vehicles (which, yes, you could hijack) played a major role. The addition of hoverboards even brought with it a “Tony Hawk”-style minigame. “Jak II” never outright abandoned the ingredients that comprised the first game, but platforming definitely takes a reduced role.

“Jak 3,” appropriately, feels like a culmination of all that preceded it. It somewhat jettisons the bustling city design in favor of something more wide-open, and its gameplay accommodates the shift with an epic adventure flavor that very capably makes room for nearly every gameplay element that found its way into the first two games.

Remarkably, the series never really loses its way during the course of this evolution. For all the different ideas each edition throws at the wall, the franchise as a whole is a model of consistency when quality is the sole metric. It’s also aged extremely well, especially with a new coat of graphical paint applied. These games were easy to recommend back when they cost $50 each, and at $40 for all three, it’s one of the better gaming values of 2012 thus far.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: thatgamecompany/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $15

If your jaw isn’t on the floor following a trip through “Journey,” call your doctor, because you probably don’t have a jaw. As best a video game can be expected to do, “Journey” replicates the sensation of being lost and alone in a wholly unknown land. It drops you in a vacant desert, offers a couple prompts to show you which buttons on your controller are in play, and that’s it. The rest of the way, you’re left to your own devices, free to venture through the desert, under the sea, and up a snowy mountain toward an oasis that waits faintly in the distance. “Journey” offers traditional resistance by way of riddles to solve and secrets to find along the way, but there’s no health bar or even enemies in the traditional sense. More than a game to beat, it’s a literal journey that wants you simply to explore its staggeringly pretty scenery rather than survive it. (Outside of the real thing, these might be the most stunning sand and snow physics you’ve ever seen.) Alone and in though, the trip is a treat without equal. But “Journey” truly sparkles when you come upon other players making their own pilgrimages in the same world. You won’t know who they are — “Journey” doesn’t reveal their PSN usernames until past the closing credits — and your only means of communication is a single button that emits a musical tone of variable length. With that, you’re free to blissfully ignore each other or find a way, like two birds chirping at each other, to share the road and complete the journey together. If you elect to try the latter option, prepare for an organic co-op gaming experience that’s wholly unlike any you’ve experienced before.

Games 3/6/12: Mass Effect 3, Zumba Fitness Rush, Warp

Mass Effect 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Bioware/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language, violence)
Price: $60

Bioware wants everyone to enjoy “Mass Effect 3,” which is why it’s instituted options that allow players to enjoy it purely as a third-person shooter (with all role-playing upgrades and moral crises handled automatically) or a role-playing game (in which you still must fight, but against a considerably more generous difficulty curve).

But if you’ve been with the “Mass Effect” trilogy from the beginning and have no desire to play its closing chapter in a compromised state, let there be no confusion: Everyone is invited to play, but “ME3” was very much still made for you.

Bioware poured an encyclopedic ton of galactic mythology into the first two chapters of its space epic, and without spoiling a single story point, “ME3” pays it all off magnificently. The battle against the galaxy-cleansing Reapers is thrilling and narratively exhaustive enough to enthrall new players — instead of assembling a squadron, as you did in “ME2,” you’re rounding up an entire galaxy’s worth of warring races to defeat the Reapers — but there is a considerable bonus for those making return visits. The conditions of “ME3’s” core conflict produce some jarringly unlikely alliances, and the sheer number of loose ends Bioware ties up (with regard to characters and entire sectors of space alike) is staggering.

As per series custom, “ME3” provides the option to import a save file from “ME2,” and it’ll tailor itself to reflect the choices you made (and, perhaps, the characters who consequently perished) in those first two games. Also per series custom, the ending you see will come down to some brutal decisions you’ll have to quickly make en route to your showdown with the Reapers. No one does this stuff better than Bioware, and “ME3” does it better than ever.

The actual act of playing “ME3” has changed little from its predecessor: It looks great, benefits from reasonably smart A.I., and as cover-based third-person shooters with light squad management abilities go, it hits enough competent marks to uphold its part of the package. Seeking cover remains occasionally problematic when embroiled in a 360-degree fight: Sometimes an attempt to find cover will result in a roll that leaves you more vulnerable than you already were. Occasionally the enemy count skyrockets and things just fall apart. But these moments are rare and, over the course of a 30-hour game that mostly plays without incident, forgivable.

A note to Xbox 360 owners: If you have a Kinect that’s suffering from neglect, plug it in. “ME3” uses the Kinect’s voice-recognition abilities better than any game ever has, and being able to manage your squad and change weapons without pausing to use the radial menu is a surprisingly valuable time-saver.

And a note to those who couldn’t stand “ME2’s” space-mining minigame: “ME3” brings it back in an altered, reduced and surprisingly tense new incarnation. It’s still wholly optional, but give it a chance.

“ME3” marks the series’ first foray into multiplayer, and the result — four-player online co-op, tasking you (as a lower-level soldier) and your teammates with eliminating waves of enemies — is your standard survival co-op mode. The combat feels the same, and with six character classes to upgrade and lots of perks, challenges and gear to unlock, the mode certainly has legs. It isn’t wholly fresh, but it’s very solid.

The one ingenious aspect of the multiplayer is how it ties back into your solo campaign. Your efforts to battle enemy forces feeds into the larger war against the Reapers: The more waves you take out in a sector of the galaxy, the stronger your fleet becomes in that sector. You need not participate to see “ME3’s” story reach its conclusion, but your story might have a happier ending if you do.

Zumba Fitness Rush
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Zoë Mode/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $50

If your aptitude as a Zumba Fitness master is of great significance to you, “Zumba Fitness Rush’s” progress tracker — which compiles daily, weekly and monthly reports about your technique as well as your time invested and calories burned — will be a source of great comfort (or perhaps, depending on the result, great shame.)

But for the rest of you who just want to have fun working out and not have a computer constantly tell you you’re doing it wrong, “Rush” — be it because it can’t or simply because it understands where you’re coming from — is a welcome change of pace.

“Rush’s” setup should feel familiar to anyone at home with dance or fitness games, because it’s basically an amalgamation of both. Along with the progress tracker, there’s a roster of preset classes (15 each of short, medium and full length), as well as a tool for assembling your own workout from the 42 songs (and accompanying routines) on offer.

Rounding out the feature set is a mode for dancing to a single song, a tool for finding live Zumba classes if you’re ready to take your act public, and a place to acquaint yourself with (and practice) the myriad of dance steps scattered throughout those routines.

That practice feature may be of interest to you if you want some grasp of the Zumba method before taking on a workout.

But even if you study up, your first “Rush” workout (and, likely, several more after that) will likely bring with it the sensation of being dropped into the deep end of the pool. Once the song begins, you’re on the clock, and if you’re expecting your virtual trainer to give you any cues as to which steps are in your immediate future, you should just give that idea up and prepare to react and emulate as quickly as you can.

Fortunately, “Rush” drops you into that pool with a life preserver in the form of a very generous technique feedback system. Make an honest attempt to keep up and reasonably replicate what’s happening on screen, and you’ll likely come away with a pretty good score. Keep a good pace, and you might even fake your way into a five-star performance. The Kinect isnt sophisticated enough to dock points based on the flustered expression on your face, so, it’ll assume you at least partially know what you’re doing.

The line of trust “Rush” draws is arguably perfect by way of being so wobbly. You can’t outright cheat it, and you slack or completely disobey the routine, it will catch and penalize you. As with a good in-person workout, the goal here is to get you moving first and learn the technique second, and regardless of “Rush’s” intentions, that’s what it achieves.

Save for its wide berth with regard to technique, “Rush’s” Kinect implementation is pretty sharp. Two-player support works similarly as long as you have the room (some routines require lateral movement that could spell trouble for uncoordinated friends). Getting around the game also is easy thanks to support for Kinect’s voice recognition abilities: Speak a menu option or even a routine’s song’s name, and it’ll head right to it — no annoying hand-waving necessary.


Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Windows PC
From: Trapdoor/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)
Price: $15

You’d be forgiven for initially wondering why “Warp” — a seemingly harmless puzzle/stealth hybrid starring a muttering alien, named Zero, who might be the cutest Pixar character Pixar never created — got slapped with a Mature rating. Thankfully, once you use Zero’s warping ability to literally warp into the body of a soldier and bloodily explode out of him, it becomes clear in a hurry. Zero’s initial trick, which allows him to instantly warp roughly five feet in any direction, comes into play via an overhead puzzle arrangement that plays as much like a “Metal Gear Solid” offshoot as anything else. Zero is helpless in a direct fight against the soldiers, scientists and other traps trying to contain (or kill) him in the facility he’s trying to escape, so you’ll have to plot a stealthy route through large, open-ended areas that are equally rich with hazards and items he can use to his creative advantage. New abilities, including cloning and telekinesis, gradually expand his arsenal to counter a difficulty that climbs gradually before spiking near the end, and the large environments house special challenge areas (complete with online leaderboards) and other bonus content for players who really want to put their abilities through the wringer. As puzzle games go, “Warp” is a legitimately clever mind-bender, and as a stealth games go, it’s terrifically tense. That odd-couple combination, along with the wild mishmash of adorable and bloody that weaves Zero’s story together, adds up to an experience that has few peers.

Games 2/28/12: Asura's Wrath, Syndicate, Nexuiz

Asura’s Wrath
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: CyberConnect2/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, partial nudity, suggestive themes, use of alcohol, violence)
Price: $60

Everything you do in “Asura’s Wrath,” you’ve done before … except, perhaps, the part where you have to fight only with your feet because your arms were ripped off during a fall from space. Or the part where you literally fight a sentient planet. Or the part where you battle what resembles a metallic Buddha, who gets devoured by a demonic elephant who himself is blasted into oblivion by a spaceship.

Other than that and some two dozen other things, you’ve done this before.

“Wrath” assembles the wildly grandiose odyssey of Asura — a disgraced demigod whose anger and lust for vengeance makes “God of War” star Kratos look like a teacup puppy by comparison — with three familiar ingredients.

Primarily, it plays like a “God of War”-style brawler, offering Asura an arsenal of melee, ranged and special attacks he can chain together with abandon.

“Wrath” intersperses the brawling with on-rails sequences — sometimes on the ground, other times soaring through space — that play like “Rez.” You control Asura’s lateral movements with the left stick, roll the targeting reticule around the screen with the right stick, and unleash a maelstrom of missiles after locking onto a dozen or so targets at once and pressing the fire button.

Gluing everything together are quick time events, those interactive cutscenes where you follow a series of onscreen button prompts to help your character execute some amazing stunt. “Wrath” has garnered a reputation for leaning excessively on the mostly unpopular QTE mechanic, but it’s undeserved. Though a regular occurrence, the QTEs never overwhelm the other facets of “Wrath’s” gameplay.

More importantly, “Wrath” actually makes them fun. Failing a QTE has consequence, but that consequence doesn’t include (as it often does in other games) resetting the cutscene ad nauseam until you recite the prompt correctly. The QTEs make sense in where and how they’re implemented, they’re generous with regard to how much time you’re given to hit them, and unless you completely drop the ball and flub every single prompt, the cutscene barrels ahead.

“Barrels” isn’t an exaggeration, either. Whether brawling, flying, QTEing or storytelling, “Wrath” screams forward at a frantic pace that ignites all these familiar gameplay concepts with a fresh, exhilarating energy.

The speed does not come at the expense of technique, either: You’ll have to evade as well as attack, whether on foot or in flight, and every boss enemy (even the planet) has patterns and tells waiting to be exploited. It’s controlled chaos at it’s finest, and when “Wrath” interweaves its three big ingredients into a single sequence that starts in the sky and ends on the ground, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen or done in a game.

“Wrath’s” story mirrors its gameplay — absolutely bananas, but surprisingly coherent (and reverent, and even funny) upon closer inspection. The game presents itself like an 18-episode television show, complete with credits on both sides, mock commercial breaks (without the actual commercials) and narrated bumpers teasing the next episode. The presentation is amusing, but it also serves a purpose: Each episode brings its own story arc to the larger narrative, and being mindful of those arcs and starting points allows “Wrath” to unfurl its increasingly crazy saga at a tempo that’s accessible in spite of all the insanity.

Depending on your play style, “Wrath’s” run doesn’t necessarily end when it ends. Casual players can complete the 18 episodes in six-ish hours and find little else to do, making the $60 price hard to swallow in spite of how great those six hours are. But overachievers have reason to give it a second and maybe third spin. Each episode has a scoring system to master, there’s an achievement for beating the game under special conditions that ramp up the difficulty, and there’s a special 19th episode waiting to be unlocked if you have what it takes to unlock it. (The end of episode 18 spills the details.)


Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Starbreeze/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)
Price: $60

Fans of the beloved 1993 strategy game “Syndicate” unleashed a nuclear moan when EA pronounced it reborn as a first-person shooter, and developer Starbreeze responded with assurances that the heart and soul would return intact.

The finished product is a rare case of both sides being right. This most definitely is “Syndicate’s” world, but fans of the strategy games most definitely have reason to howl anyway.

Mostly, it’s because the one hopeful straw at which that crowd could grasp — a storyline that meaningfully takes the universe into a new chapter with the benefits of modern production values at its back — never really pans out.

Conceptually, the finer details of “Syndicate’s” world are there, and outside of some needlessly tiny text and a bizarre case of light bloom so bright it occasionally washes out your view, it looks very good.

But it’s mostly a tease. The concepts behind “Syndicate’s” storyline — corporations battling for control governments once had, a power struggle where even the good guys (you included) have bloody hands, a bizarre technocracy where getting microchipped and connecting your mind directly to the Internet is a status symbol, source of power and grave risk all at once — are immensely fascinating, but the meat of it unfolds via audio logs and a library of text you can read in the menu screen (tiny text and all). The story that plays out in front of you alludes to everything, but it overwhelmingly focuses on you, the corporation for which you work and a select handful of allegiances that threaten its (and your) health.

Ultimately, as perhaps you feared, “Syndicate” boils down to another case of you against most of the world. Here’s hoping you like shooting a whole ton of enemy soldiers as they rush at you from everywhere, because that, more than anything else, is what “Syndicate” is all about.

In fairness to Starbreeze, the shooter they’ve built is a fine one, with polished control, a powerful arsenal of guns, and enemy A.I. that flashes a strong combination of brains and teeth.

Your microchipped mind comes into play, too. A limited-use interface overlay can temporarily slow time and give away enemy positions, while special abilities let you hack enemies’ minds in order to overload their circuits or brainwash them into sacrificing themselves or fighting on your side. Occasionally, you’ll also hack other objects — sentry guns, elevators and so on — to operate in your favor. “Syndicate” never puts the hacking mechanic to use in the form of a truly clever puzzle, but it’s prevalent enough to give an otherwise boilerplate shooter campaign the identity it needs.

Along with the single-player campaign, “Syndicate” offers a wholly separate co-op campaign (four players, online only) that puts you in the boots of a capable but less powerful corporate foot soldier.

The co-op campaign is even flatter in terms of storytelling, but if you come prepared to play — i.e., with three friends ready to work as a team — it’s the better of the two modes. Your hacking deficiencies are compensated for when your three teammates hack alongside you, and being able to heal each other is a godsend. You’re weaker, the enemies are stronger and bolder, and the campaign difficulty is an order of magnitude higher even on its lowest setting, so teamwork and communication are imperative. (The difficulty doesn’t scale for fewer players, either, so find a quartet. You’ll need it.)

For your trouble, “Syndicate” offers a persistent upgrade tree that’s considerably more rewarding than the meager upgrades found in the single-player campaign. You get experience points for being a good teammate as well as marksman, and with time, the perks and weapons you unlock will make you a more formidable soldier than your single-player counterpart.


For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Illfonic/THQ
ESRB Rating: Teen (Crude Humor, Mild Language, Violence)
Price: $10

“Nexuiz” may proudly proclaim it’s one of the first downloadable games available that’s powered by the CryENGINE 3 engine, but anyone with a discerning eye for shooters knows that the presence of “Quake III Arena’s” heart and soul is the real story here. Originally conceived years ago as a “Quake” mod, “Nexuiz” comes into its own by taking that series’ core principles — blindingly fast first-person shooter combat, small but intricate maps laden with weapons and game-changing power-ups — and giving them a polished, modern sheen (thanks, largely, to CryENGINE 3’s impressive visual capabilities). Those in search of storytelling and along time need not apply: “Nexuiz” offers a practice mode with A.I. bots, but you must play against others (eight players, online only) to pad your statistics and get those achievements. But much like “Q3A” was so pure in its freneticism that anyone could play it, so is “Nexuiz,” which plays spotlessly online and offers a lot to like — nine maps, nine dual-fire weapons, a ton of mutators that can temporarily enhance your skills or sabotage your enemies’ abilities — for its $10 price tag. The emphasis on team play — team deathmatch and capture the flag are its sole match types — also means you’re never fighting alone.