Games 2/14/12: The Darkness II, Gotham City Impostors, Shank 2

The Darkness II
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Digital Extremes/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content)
Price: $60

Though certainly a first-person shooter at its core, “The Darkness” may be remembered most fondly for the unique ways it applied thick layers of stealth, adventure gaming and a bold devotion to sink-or-swim immersion that no game since has quite captured. Playing “The Darkness” often felt like being a tourist in a new town — albeit one where a disproportionate percentage of the locals wanted to kill you.

Playing “The Darkness II,” by contrast, feels like passing through as Godzilla. Jackie Estacado (that’s you) is more powerful, the powers ingrained in him by the enigmatic force known as The Darkness are considerably nastier, and the game — set two years later and produced by a new developer — sheds most of those layers in favor of a straight sprint that’s exhilarating and potentially dispiriting all at once.

Let’s not mince words: The six-ish hours that embody “TD2’s” main campaign may very possibly be the six craziest hours you spend playing a first-person shooter this year. Jackie’s brandishes the usual crop of firearms, but the upgradable powers granted by The Darkness — wieldable swarms and black holes, a demonic underling who does your bidding while calling you names, and a pair of demonic arms that can tear enemies apart, feed on them and toss them across the room — are anything but rudimentary.

Instead of piecing out combat and creating scenarios where acting stealthily works best, “TD2” throws you into the fire and encourages you to mix gunplay and demonplay in whatever ridiculous fashion pleases you best. One firefight never differs dramatically from another, and even the most powerful enemies aren’t terribly smart, but a mix of busy environments and relentless enemy formations ensures plenty of room for attacking creatively instead of simply twitching and reacting.

With that picture painted, let’s not mince words here either: While “TD2” preserves the original game’s soul in some respects, and while the game is a riot to play on its own terms, the new gameplay comes almost completely at the expense of everything the first game dared to do differently.

The need to literally read street signs and check subway schedules to navigate around an unfriendly and non-linear city is, for instance, no more. “TD2” is nearly always straightforward, and a button press tells you exactly where to go if you somehow still get lost.

The need to shoot out streetlights in order to design the perfect stealth ambush is, to name another example, almost absent. Jackie’s Darkness powers still disappear in bright light, so shooting lights out still works to your advantage, but you’ll do so in the heat of a battle in progress instead of in anticipation of a fight you’re starting on your terms.

Where the spirit of the first game shines without contradiction is in “TD2’s” storytelling, which resumes where the original left off and arguably outdoes that game in terms of presentation, character design and exploration of The Darkness and its roots. “TD2’s” voice acting is superb, its cast (down to that strangely adorable name-calling demon underling) extremely memorable. And the new visual style — which uses hand-drawn and hand-painted textures to give players the sensation of playing inside a freely explorable graphic novel — is a night-and-day improvement over the first game’s more traditional look.

Instead of the first game’s competitive multiplayer, which few will miss, “TD2” complements the campaign with a collection of hit missions and a second, shorter campaign you can play alone or cooperatively (online only, four players). None of the four playable characters are as powerful as Jackie, nor are the missions very creatively designed. But each has a unique power that Jackie lacks, and the game’s devotion to strong storytelling and character design applies remains in full effect.

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Gotham City Impostors
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Monolith/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, comic mischief, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $15

“Gotham City Impostors” posits a wonderfully crazy idea: an urban battleground pitting self-appointed vigilantes in shoddy Batman costumes (Team Bats) against similarly entrepreneurial criminals in homemade Joker getups (Team Jokerz).

It’s such an inventive premise, in fact, you might be dismayed to see it applied to a multiplayer first-person shooter that, beneath the surface, is only so different from the multitude of other class-based shooters already crowding the market.

Purely in terms of being what it sets out to be, “Impostors” is mechanically excellent. Monolith’s first-person shooter expertise — if you’ve played “F.E.A.R.” or “Condemned,” you’re familiar with its work — gives “Impostors” a rock-solid foundation in terms of control responsiveness and other particulars. You can choose preset loadouts catered to five classes (Striker, Defender, Medic, Scout, Sniper) or configure your own, and between the guns you expect and a few that are special to this world, your firearm needs are covered.

Though your toys are nowhere near as impressive as Batman’s or The Joker’s gadgets, “Impostors” gives you a few to play with, and it doesn’t force you to level up before you can play with them. That’s a very good thing, because while you can freely sprint around the five maps, it’s more fun to glide, spring into the air and zip around with the grappling hook. “Impostors,” realizing this, designs the maps to take full advantage, with multiple vertical levels, numerous hiding spots in high places, and lots of opportunities to flee harm’s way in a flash.

For those dismayed by the increasingly uneven playing fields that make most multiplayer shooters practically impenetrable for new players after a few weeks, the news about “Impostors” is good. Unlockables are numerous, but they’re cosmetic and personal enhancements rather than weapons and perks that offer players an unbalanced performance edge. For those invested in the game, the personal enhancements — including new performance trackers and in-game challenges to complete — are terrific carrots within a carrot. A truckload of clothing pieces makes it possible to design Batman and Joker costumes that bring out your personal sense of shoddy style. You even can use unlocked graphics to design a special calling card that other players see when you take them out.

Here’s hoping you enjoy that kind of ribbing, because if you aren’t here for the online multiplayer (12 players), you may as well not be here at all.

Though the Bats and Jokerz spout some funny lines during the course of a match, there’s no story mode to really let the premise shine. You can’t play against bots or against friends via splitscreen, and outside of a tutorial mode and some very brief skills challenges, online play is your only option. The three match types are your standard class shooter match types, the matchmaking system is predictably prone to dropping you into fights against players ranked higher than you, and if you don’t enjoy duking it out online in “Call of Duty” and its ilk, the amusing little things that set “Impostors” apart from its humorless contemporaries will be cold (and short-lived) comfort.

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Shank 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Klei Entertainment/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)
Price: $15

The original “Shank” took a handful of good ingredients from different genres and combined them into one surprisingly focused action game. “Shank 2” doesn’t mess with that approach, providing a second helping of all the first game did right and making adjustments to the few places where it went wrong. For the uninitiated, “Shank 2” is a violent but cartoony sidescroller in the “Metal Slug” vein, outfitting players with guns and explosives but placing special emphasis on close-quarters combat and providing an abundance of weapons (from knives to shovels to chainsaws to wieldable fish) with which to deal damage. The melee combat is, despite the 2D presentation, somewhat in the “Devil May Cry” vein. A when-all-else-fails pounce attack come straight out of Wolverine’s playbook. And the running and jumping occasionally feels like a classic “Prince of Persia” game when Shank is in chase and chaining moves together without hesitation. Beyond telling a new story, “Shank 2” tempers the first game’s occasionally cheap difficulty, fixes a few unfortunate button-mapping choices, and adds some new moves — most notably, a very convenient evasive roll and a terrific counterattack mechanic — that allow players to better fight defensively. A new arcade-style Survival mode (two players, online or offline) also complements the story and allows players to unlock and play as new characters. That feature comes at the expense of the first game’s collection of co-op-only missions, but it’s a better fit that’s built to endure longer than those missions did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games 1/31/12: Resident Evil: Revelations, Final Fantasy XIII-2, Quarrel

Resident Evil: Revelations
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, language)
Price: $40

After Capcom insulted 3DS owners last year with the laughably shallow and overpriced “Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D,” you’d be forgiven for dismissing “Resident Evil: Revelations” as yet another thoughtless cash-in.

You’d be wrong, but you’d be forgiven.

To the contrary, and staggeringly so, “Revelations” is the real deal — a console-quality “Resident Evil” game that arguably surpasses the series’ excellent recent console efforts, and a showcase piece for a system that may be more powerful than you’d figured.

“Revelations” illuminates the murky timeline leading into the events of 2009’s “Resident Evil 5,” and the approach it takes — pieced into episodes like a television show, and fronted by multiple playable protagonists at different points in the timeline — is a novel venture for the series.

The obvious benefits apply, with the episodic approach (and complementary save/checkpoint system) giving “Revelations” some welcome portable-friendly breaks in the action. The structure also keeps the story on point: Every episode, even when ending on a cliffhanger, contains its own satisfying story arc, and the multiple characters and timelines keep developments cropping up at an engrossing pace.

In a more surprising benefit, the episodic structure also lets “Revelations” be all things “Resident Evil” at once.

Jill Valentine returns to carry the bulk of “Revelations'” playable character weight, and her scenes — set almost exclusively aboard a gargantuan cruise liner crawling with secrets — are a callback to the original “Resident Evil’s” sprawling mansion. The enemy count is sparse, but so is Jill’s ammo, and the threat of significant peril around any given corner — even when tracing old steps to access previously inaccessible corridors — provides the best blend yet of the franchise’s contemporary gameplay and original ethos.

By contrast — and without spoiling the who or where — the segments starring other characters unfold in a variety of environments that favor heavier action and a more linear progression.

Impressively, “Revelations” can handle both styles even if you pass on the $20 Circle Pad Pro attachment, which gives the 3DS a second analog pad. The attachment wasn’t available for testing with “Revelations,” but it wasn’t needed.

Hypothetically, “Revelations” — which adopts “RE5’s” third-person perspective but offers an optional first-person view when guns are drawn — is better without it. With only one pad, combat becomes a tense compromise between positioning and firing instead of mindless running and gunning, and during those moments where big trouble breaks loose in small spaces and death can come quick, being just a little purposefully hamstrung by the controls adds to the excitement. The controls are responsive, the touchscreen adds a second layer of intuitive access, and it’s almost fun to fight the game when it’s by design and the design is this sharp.

“Revelations” adds a weird new wrinkle with a scanning device that lets Jill and others analyze the environment for hidden items and enemy data. Initially, its implementation feels clumsy, because you have to stash your weapon to use the scanner. But that, of course, is the point: If you want the rewards, you have holster your gun and assume the risks of doing so. Yet again, “Revelations” mixes intuitive design with deliberate inconvenience to turn a quirky mechanic into a tense gamble.

Presentationally, “Revelations” is a testament to the 3DS’ surprising power, with console-quality graphics that pop beautifully with the 3D maxed out. The sound design is stellar, and you’d do very well to play this one with headphones on.

Amusingly, “Revelations” also includes a mode — playable solo or wirelessly/online with another player — that basically mimics the sole mode that comprised “Mercenaries.” It might be the first time a $40 game has included a $50 game as a bonus feature, but regardless, it’s a welcome (and fitting) concession from a studio that got it all the way right this time.

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Final Fantasy XIII-2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, mild language, mild suggestive themes, simulated gambling, violence)
Price: $60

Did you play “Final Fantasy XIII?” Because if you didn’t, this welcome mat is not for you.

“Final Fantasy XIII-2” easily is the most direct sequel Square-Enix has ever made for a “Final Fantasy” game. Neither a spinoff nor a quirky offshoot (like “Final Fantasy X-2” famously was), “XIII-2” directly follows the events of its predecessor’s story and keeps that game’s battle system — a cool mix of turn-based gameplay set to real-time rules in which you devise multiple roles for your characters and set them in furious motion — pretty much intact. The primary cast has changed, with story-mandated events putting “XIII’s” Serah at the forefront of a search for her sister (and “XIII” protagonist) Lightning, but skeletally, “XIII-2” has far more in common than not with “XIII.”

More than anything, “XIII-2” feels like a second draft that might not even exist if “XIII” didn’t attract the harsh criticism it got.

For that crowd, the changes are welcome. Where “XIII” was shockingly linear for a role-playing game, “XIII” offers towns, dungeons with branching paths and side quests to complement the main storyline. Even that main storyline fractures, hinging on an incorporation of time travel that (while narratively uninspired) often lets you jump tracks when you’re ready instead of when the story dictates. (As a welcome — albeit almost certainly unintentional — result, many of “XIII-2’s” most tedious fetch quests and mini-games can be skipped entirely if you wish to ignore them.)

“XIII-2’s” most inspired new twist comes from its unusual party arrangement, which gives you two human characters and “Pokemon”-esque monster to complement them in battle. The game is crawling with monsters to capture, customize and upgrade, and while the exercise is mostly optional, it’s where most of “XIII-2’s” most enjoyable character customization lies.

But “XIII-2’s” inarguable blessing is its willingness to let you commandeer its battle system quickly. “XIII” held players’ hands for nearly 20 hours — that’s 20, not a typo — before completely relinquishing control. “XIII-2” offers a comprehensive tutorial for new and rusty players, but you can skip it if you wish, and without spoiling the narrative hows or whens, you’re off and running in pretty short order.

Along with the battle tutorial, “XIII-2” also offers a chapter-by-chapter story primer for those who wish to understand the events of “XIII” but skip straight to playing “XIII-2.”

But as many who played it will attest, “XIII’s” story was a needless and often incomprehensibly dense climb up a shallow hill, and there’s only so much the primer can do to clean it up. Even if you read the whole thing, jumping straight into “XIII-2” is like skipping the first three seasons of “Lost” and expecting to enjoy the remaining three as much as those who have been watching all along.

Storytelling, sadly, remains the one place where “XIII-2” stumbles as much as (if not more than) “XIII.” It’s opaque almost from the start. The main characters are bland, the supporting characters often obnoxious. And once again, a simple story gets weighed down by its mythology and character dialogue instead of enriched by them. (Given what a kick to the face the primary ending is, though, that may be blessing in disguise.)

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Quarrel
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Indiagames Limited/Denki/UTV Ignition
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $5

The conceptually brilliant and rambunctiously cheerful “Quarrel” is what happens when Boggle and RISK join forces. Up to four armies share adjacent territories with one another, and dominating a “Quarrel” match comes down to wiping out opposing armies before they decimate yours. This time, though, a battle comes down to eight random letters and one chance to build a better word than your enemy. The more troops you have occupying the conflicted square, the more letters you can use to build your word, and the winning army can (depending on circumstance) take the square completely, whittle it down to one opposing troop, or turn enemies into turncoats. “Quarrel’s” cheerful presentation is dangerously caffeinated, but the actual game takes a great idea and gets it absolutely right. All of this was already the case with “Quarrel’s” iOS iteration, which included lots of well-tuned single-player content (campaign, customizable match play, daily challenges) but no multiplayer of any kind. With the move to Xbox Live, “Quarrel” finally fixes that: There’s no local multiplayer (which makes sense given the game’s setup), but you can play online with up to three others. This, along with all the iOS version’s single-player content and some new scenario wrinkles for those playing alone, makes this the best version available (and makes the exclusion of multiplayer on iOS even more annoying than it already was). The only downside: Playing “Quarrel” with a controller isn’t as graceful as it is on a touch screen. Fortunately, it’s a slight rather than significant inconvenience, and if you have a Chat Pad, you’ll be happy to know it’s supported.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Striiv
From: Striiv
Price: $100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PlayStation 3D display
From: Sony
Price: $500

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games 11/29/11: Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Disney Universe, Where is my Heart?

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
For: Xbox 360
From: 343 Industries/Bungie/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $40

Though “Halo: Combat Evolved’s” impact has been exhaustingly documented, there may be no finer point than the realization that the 2011 holiday season’s best new first-person shooter may very well be a 10-year-old game with a fresh coat of paint.

At least on the solo (or two-player co-op) side, that’s what “Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary” is — a pretty carbon copy of the game that launched with the original Xbox in 2001 and subsequently formed the foundation of a video game juggernaut.

Arguably, “Anniversary’s” faithfulness is to a fault if you’re accustomed to the advancements the series has made — from enemy A.I. to the ability to sprint, hijack enemy vehicles and dual-wield weapons — since that first game. Even visually, and regardless of a graphical revamp that brings everything up to par with the recent “Halo” games, there are allusions to yesteryear in the jerky way other characters animate and the odd turns enemies sometimes make when flanking and backpedaling.

The upside to staying so faithful? A cool trick that lets you swap between the old and new graphics at any time with a single button press. The transition is a little awkward insofar that the screen briefly fades to black without without stopping the action. But as a fulfillment of curiosity and a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far graphics have come in a decade, it’s a wonderful little touch. (Just be sure to use it when the coast is clear.)

As it happens, the rest of the game remains pretty wonderful as well. “Halo’s” sequels and prequels have outdone it in terms of scope, design variety and level arrangements, but the tenets of those great games — wide-open battlefields, branching paths even indoors, enemies that swarm and flank as well as rush in packs, numerous opportunities for devising your own unique plan of attack — are fully intact here. It was groundbreaking in 2001, and in 2011, following on the heels of oppressively linear military shooters that routinely punish creativity in their campaigns, it still puts many of its newer, flashier contemporaries to shame.

For those who never played it on the original Xbox, the full-circle timing of this anniversary release could not be better. Last year’s “Halo: Reach” allowed players to play out the story that fed into the events of the original game, so if “Anniversary” is new to you, it may as well be a sequel to “Reach” in the same way a “Star Wars” movie from 1977 is a sequel to one released in 2005.

For the returning players, each mission hides a terminal that unlocks new insights — courtesy of perennial series antagonist 343 Guilty Spark — about where the series is headed when the next “Halo” trilogy kicks off next year. The terminals are sometimes harder to find than they should be, but for the diehards, they’re absolutely worth seeking out.

“Anniversary’s” faithfulness isn’t quite as hardcore on the multiplayer side (16 players). The game includes remastered versions of six classic maps and some match configurations that allow players to reenact the original game’s four-player multiplayer, but it uses “Reach’s” multiplayer engine to power it.

At no point does “Anniversary” pretend otherwise: The game uses the “Reach” branding, includes all of its features (from Forge mode to jetpacks), and allows you to play with “Reach” players who purchase the six maps as a $15 download. The maps that shipped with “Reach” aren’t included on “Anniversary,” but in a generous touch, “Anniversary” includes a code that lets you download the maps for free and use them in “Reach” if you have a copy.

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Disney Universe
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows PC
From: Eurocom/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor)
Price: $50

Though “Disney Universe’s” name isn’t exactly untruthful, it might be a little misleading. This is neither a simulation nor an expansive online multiplayer game (as games with the word “Universe” generally tend to be), and it certainly shouldn’t be confused with the “Kinect Disneyland Adventures” game that lets you explore a virtual Disneyland.

If anything, the “Disney” in the name is more garnish than dish — a decorative exterior for a platforming game that has more in common with “LittleBigPlanet” and the Lego games than anything the “Universe” tag might imply.

Unless you had grandiose ideas for “Universe,” though, that little surprise is — particularly for younger and unseasoned players — a pleasant one.

“Universe’s” levels are modestly sized and pretty self-contained, framed by a fixed-camera perspective that functions similarly to what you get in those Lego games. Also like those games, completing a level in “Universe” typically entails complete a handful of simple mandatory objectives (which clear the way, cause-and-effect style, to the exit) and some trickier optional objectives that are good for collectibles, achievements/trophies and pride in a challenge comprehensively completed.

At no point does this become strenuously difficult: Even flat-out dying in “Universe” provides no punishment beyond simply losing a few hundred coins, which are abundantly available and function as currency toward unlocking new levels and other bonus content. But “Universe” isn’t so easy as to be insulting or boring even to players who are experienced enough to cruise through it.

In large part, that’s because “Universe” does the little things better than those Lego games do. Enemies storm levels at regular intervals, but while the combat is simple and loose, it’s far more refined (and, consequently, miles more fun) than the Lego games’ shoddy excuse for brawling. “Universe” also handles locomotion with considerably less guesswork: The characters don’t run and jump like they’re wearing soggy clothes, which makes it more fun to get around and easier to (among other things) correct a bad jump while airborne. Given a fixed camera’s occasional tendency to betray the laws of perspective and distance, even a little extra polish in this arena goes a long way toward alleviating aggravation.

Predictably, everything the game does is more fun when in the company of others. “Universe” supports four-player offline co-op, and it fulfills the mission of giving players numerous reasons and means to antagonize each other as well as work together.

If, at this point, you’re wondering how Disney fits into this, the answer is “loosely.” “Universe’s” levels are themed according to Disney properties, but the themes feel like themes more than the actual worlds from whence these brands came.

That’s doubly so for the characters you play as and face off against: Instead of literal Disney characters, they’re vinyl dolls wearing costumes with Disney character themes. If you played “LittleBigPlanet” — and particularly if you purchased any of the Disney-branded outfits for that game — the characters in “Universe” will almost certainly look just a little familiar.

The significant upside to that loose interpretation is that it allows “Universe” to cram a whole ton o’ Disney — Mickey and friends, Winnie the Pooh, the Muppets, the Disney Princesses, Pixar’s most wanted, Jack Sparrow, “Tron” and more — into the game without having to explain why Lilo and Peter Pan might be joining forces on a pirate ship. The story it comes up with instead is amusing, the characters look adorable in their Disney Halloween costumes, and the costume abilities and level intricacies shout out to their respective themes in clever ways that set this apart from just another Disney game.

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Where is my Heart?
For: Playstation 3/Playstation Portable (universal, via Playstation Network Minis)
From: Die Gute Fabrik
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $7

A traumatic family hiking trip inspired Bernie Schulenburg to design “Where is my Heart?,” and what results is a wonderful case of turning a negative into a positive. “Heart” follows the adventures of three monsters lost in the woods and searching for a way home, and at its most basic (on the first level), it’s a simple case of running and jumping through a level that fits entirely within the constraints of a single screen. From there, though, the levels break apart into disconnected panes that form a coherent level but do so out of order. A pane in the top left of the screen might depict scenery that’s adjacent to a square on the bottom right instead of right next to it, and you’ll need to dance along the edges and use the level design’s context clues to decipher how to reach the exit. “Heart” goes from easy to ingenious extremely quickly, and once it gives you the ability to rotate those panels and navigate parallel dimensions in search of shortcuts on the other side, the puzzles become downright devious. Fortunately, everything else about the game — the adorable 8-bit graphics, the sweet demeanor of the monsters, a sound palette that’s minimalist in a way that evokes Apple II-era games — makes “Heart” too impossibly charming to even frown at while its puzzles cerebrally kick you in the face. An understated gem like this stands in complete contrast to the tornado of big budget games that are bigger and badder iterations of the same old thing, and if you’re dying simply the play something you’ve never played before, this one is essential.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games 11/8/11: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
For: Playstation 3
From: Naughty Dog/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $60

Viewed under a critical microscope, “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” is by no means a perfect game.

Viewed on a television and from within the throes of immersion, however, it’s awfully good at feeling like one. And that’s plenty good enough.

You already know this if you played “Uncharted 2,” which took its predecessor’s mix of shooting and large-scale platforming and funneled it into one insane set piece after another.

“Deception” works similarly, and like its predecessors, it isn’t the best in class at any one thing it does. The platforming is exhilarating when set aboard a sinking cruise liner or as part of a rooftop chase through a bustling city, but it lacks the go-anywhere freedom something like “Assassin’s Creed” has in spades. Hand-to-hand combat attempts a system similar to that of recent Batman games, but relies too much on onscreen prompts instead of pure rhythm to match it. The batch of puzzles you must solve along the way are the series’ best, but recent “Tomb Raider” games have better toed the line between challenge, scope and accessibility.

“Deception” shows the most warts as a third-person shooter. Nathan Drake’s aiming acumen remains shaky, enemies still require too many bullets to put down, and certain firefights make it impossible to establish a thoughtful strategy — especially when a fistfight breaks out during a gunfight.

But that’s the beauty of “Deception.” A fistfight can break out amid a gunfight, and it’s often your call to make it so.

Even though “Deception’s” pieces are separately outclassed in other games, no other game does this many things this well and looks this incredible doing them. Shootouts become brawls, which become chases that involve simultaneous shooting and climbing, and the game transitions from element to element with no seams showing. “Deception” is a linear experience that continually pushes you forward, but in blurring the line between gameplay and summer blockbuster cutscene, it never takes control away.

Often — for instance, during a wild horseback chase in the desert — “Deception” lays the tools at your feet and lets you pick. In this scenario, you control your horse, you’re free to leap from the horse onto an enemy’s truck (or vice versa), and you choose how to dispatch your enemies (at range from the horse, up close with your fists, or something in between). Most games would distill your actions down to interactive cutscenes in order to convey the cinematic look “Deception” achieves, but this one lets you play out this and numerous other equally spectacular scenes on your terms.

The absence of seams trickles down to “Deception’s” storyline, which cements Drake as a deeply likable adventurer with a lucky streak that puts Indiana Jones to shame. “Deception’s” story is a treat for those curious about Drake’s lineage and origins, but it’s the little things — throwaway lines, idle ticks, panic at a bad idea backfiring — that underscore just how immaculate the game’s audiovisual presentation is.

“UC2’s” addition of a full-featured multiplayer suite took many by pleasant surprise, and “Deception” (16 players) reemphasizes what made it great. It’s flexible — you can play alone, on two eight-player teams or with a friend on teams of two via local/online co-op — and the extensive experience points system allows for considerable character upgrades and redesigns. A new system of perks and special objectives provides instant rewards and wrinkles that take immediate effect within a match in progress.

But multiplayer’s best facet remains the ability to seamlessly mix all that platforming, shooting and fighting on multiplayer maps that are far more open-ended than “Deception’s” single-player set pieces. Whether you crave theater or freedom, this one has the best of both worlds at the ready.

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The Lord of the Rings: War in the North
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Snowblind Studios/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence)
Price: $60

Snowblind Studios gets kudos for telling a new “Lord of the Rings” story — set chronologically parallel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s story and featuring his iconic characters, but starring a new set of characters created expressly for the game — instead of retreating to yet more recreations of the same old battles.

The flip side, of course, is that Tolkien’s most ardent fans will be first in line to pick apart “War in the North’s” fiction. Andriel the Elven Loremaster wields magic that’s pretty out of step with Gandalf’s arsenal. A giant talking eagle, while a very well-developed character who is great fun to summon in battle, will nonetheless remind some of Sean Connery voicing a dragon in “Dragonheart” more than anything from the “LOTR” universe. Finally, while the fellowship occasionally checks in with your party, the result of those check-ins often leaves you feeling like a second-string hero. “North” tells a comprehensive side story with branching quests and numerous mandatory and elective dialogue paths, but it’s one that will strike some as a dungeon crawler with Tolkien trimmings instead of the other way around.

Fortunately, if trimmings are enough and you like dungeon crawlers, the rest of the news is pretty good.

For starters, while “North” prioritizes action over role-playing, it offers a satisfying array of role-playing elements. Each of the three playable characters — Andriel, Eradan the Ranger, Farin the Dwarf — has a separate level cap of 40. The primary attributes stick to the basics, but combine those with the branching trees of acquirable special abilities and there’s a satisfying sense of growth throughout the adventure. (In case you’re curious: Yes, you can switch between characters during a single campaign. And yes, your characters’ stats carry over if you replay the campaign, which returns the favor by offering a harder difficulty setting.)

“North” also dishes out loot, and plenty of it. Every piece of your characters’ clothing is separately interchangeable, and weapons and clothing alike can be modded with stones that grant special offensive or defensive characteristics. Your weapon and clothing choices are visually reflected on your character, and finding a rare sword that looks awesome and flaunts special bonuses is almost as fun as wielding it. “North’s” system of rare loot isn’t as extensive as, say, “Diablo,” but it’s pretty satisfying.

Ultimately and overwhelmingly, though, “North” is about bloody, vicious combat. This is the first “LOTR” to get a Mature ESRB rating, and that rating is earned: You’ll carve through armies of orcs, trolls, skeletons, spiders and more, and the game’s insatiable appetite for combos and critical attacks results in carnage that lives up to Tolkien’s depictions of war.

“North’s” combat does have a variety problem, often pushing out successive waves of the same enemies instead of mixing them up across shorter battles. The satisfying impact of the combat does much to offset the encroaching feeling that killing one troll will probably just result in two more appearing, but it’s impossible to completely ignore. If you play solo, the combat A.I. of your allies also leaves something to be desired, though they’re exceptionally adept at healing you when you’re down.

For the optimum experience, though, co-op (two players splitscreen, three online) is the way to go. Having three competent fighters instead of one is obviously helpful, and the downside — that you’ll have to work together to stay alive instead of count on the A.I. to bail you out — simply makes the combat more exciting. Fortunately, “North” is flexible enough to let you play solo or with different configurations of friends within the same campaign, so you’ll always be able to push forward whether friends are available or not.