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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games 10/18/11: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, Spider-Man: Edge of Time, Orcs Must Die!

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, blood, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $60

Have a seat, “Ace Combat” fans, because this might hurt.

“Ace Combat: Assault Horizon” is a startling departure that trades in the series’ mild-mannered temperament and fictional universe for a crank-it-to-11 summer blockbuster set in our world, and the change of pace — along with how effectively “Horizon” pulls it off — will shock and thrill many who play it expecting the same old aerial dogfighting game.

Problem is, the series’ most ardent fans may not be among that many.

Before we get carried away, let’s clarify: “Horizon” isn’t completely unrecognizable. Most of its missions still take place in a wide-open sky in which the objective is to track, chase and shoot down enemy aircraft. The campaign offers a nice selection of planes to fly, and a few special weapons complement the standard-issue machine gun and homing missiles.

But “Horizon” has a taste for theater that far exceeds that of its predecessors, and it comes frantically alive during dogfight mode, which radically transforms (and, if you’re a series purist, potentially ruins) the tenor of its air combat.

Though you’re free to shoot down most planes using traditional tactics, you also (if you’re quick enough) can toggle dogfight mode when in close pursuit of enemy aircraft. Upon activating it, the action zooms in and speeds up, and instead of freely controlling your plane’s flight path, you’re handling the aiming reticule while the game handles flight duties.

On paper, it sounds like dogfighting for dummies, but in practice — at breakneck speed and seamlessly integrated with traditional seek-and-destroy play — it’s surprisingly exciting. It also works both ways: Enemies can lock onto you, at which point you can eat it, evade or pull off an exhilarating reversal and turn the hunter into the hunted.

With that said, “Horizon” periodically falls a little too in love with dogfight mode’s ability to feed into scripted events. Certain special enemies will perish only via dogfight mode, and only when you’ve chased them long enough to reach a special set piece that participates in their demise. Along with some ill-timed cutaways that disrupt your focus without reason or warning, “Horizon’s” occasional inability to moderate its theatrics will annoy new and old fans alike.

Other shifts will prove more polarizing. Sacrificing fantastical planes and weaponry for real-world counterparts is disappointing. But “Horizon” at least tells a more coherent story than modern combat games typically spin, and the visually impressive chance to buzz past the Washington Monument and conduct air raids in front of the Kremlin will plenty justify the change for some.

“Horizon” also hops aboard the “Modern Warfare” bandwagon by inserting diversionary missions in which you attack ground units from a chopper, man a door gun, engage in semi-scripted bombing runs and even pick off enemies from high above in an AC-130.

These diversions come fast and furious early on, and they’re certainly proficient. But “Horizon’s” second-half shift back to air combat is welcome nonetheless, because dogfighting is still what it does best. In fact, the best diversion of all — a stealth run where you must avoid radar detection — takes place in a jet.

The same holds true for “Horizon’s” online multiplayer (16 players), which incorporates dogfight mode perfectly by letting players pull reversals on each other without worrying about scripted intrusions. Standard match types are available, with the star being eight-on-eight territorial team battles, and a game-wide points system allows you to unlock new weapons and aircraft as you progress. (“Horizon” also supports online co-op, but only for missions you’ve completed on your own first.)

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Spider-Man: Edge of Time
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS
From: Beenox/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $60

When last year’s “Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions” scrapped the usual open-world setup in favor of contained but large and visually diverse levels starring four different Spider-Men and a wild array of colorful villains, the result was an exciting, fun and funny validation of how to add by subtracting.

“Spider-Man: Edge of Time,” on the other hand, is what happens when you simply take too much away.

“Time” plays the multidimensional card once again, but this time the rift is purely chronological, and only two Spider-Men — Amazing and 2099 — are involved. The two Spideys have slight differences in their combat repertoires, but they’re more similar than not, and some of the curveballs from “Dimensions” — namely, Noir Spidey and his stealthy problem-solving approach — are quickly missed here.

But no absence in “Time” is felt more painfully than that of the sky.

Bafflingly, and in a move akin to making a racing game set entirely inside a parking garage, “Time” takes place exclusively indoors, grounding both Spider-Men inside a single building that, while massive, offers precious few opportunities to let our heroes do what they do best. The occasional large room allows Spidey to sling and swing, but only one room boasts the square footage needed to truly swing freely, and even that room pales in comparison to the freedom “Dimensions” and its even more wide-open predecessors offered.

Without the unbridled joy of movement for which “Spider-Man” games are known, the burden of gameplay falls on brawling.

Per usual, it’s satisfactory, but not much more than that. Taking down enemies awards experience points that eventually unlock new moves, and “Time’s” speed and control responsiveness are respectively high and polished enough that even simple button-mashing combos are fun to string together. Those who fight intelligently and defensively are rewarded as well — even if evasion in “Time” is pretty simple and rarely requires anything more than remotely decent reaction time.

But if that all reads like faint praise, that’s because it is. Previous games benefited from an ability to break up the combat with freewheeling movement that no other game ever quite matched, and “Time’s” cramped surroundings prevent that from happening here. Instead, you’re looking for keys and activating switches like you would in any number of other beat-’em-up games. The only notable diversion — diving down elevator shafts of what must be the tallest building in human history — isn’t significant enough to chase away the sense of repetition that creeps in way too early in “Time’s” brisk six-hour lifespan.

It doesn’t help that “Time” is hurting for inspiration everywhere else as well. Impressive in stature though the Alchemax building may be, it’s an architectural eyesore, crawling with futuristically generic corridors that rarely deviate in terms of structure and design. “Time’s” villain quotient is similarly vanilla, with Alchemax mad scientist Walker Sloan getting most of the attention and “Dimensions'” colorful cast going mostly missing (and settling for bit parts when they do show). The two Spideys certainly make a likable team despite the time rift, and “Time” keeps up with “Dimensions” in terms of fielding an enjoyable voice cast, but voice acting can’t carry a story if the gameplay isn’t there to lend a hand.

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Orcs Must Die!
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Robot Entertainment/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: iiiiiiiiii
Price: $15

The recent marriage between tower defense and third-person action games has been a rather blissful one, and the absolutely manic “Orcs Must Die!” will only prolong the honeymoon. As the title suggests, it’s your job — as the deeply likable and fully playable guy known only as the War Mage apprentice — to kill the band of orcs (among other creatures) descending on your fortress. You can take the hands-on approach with your sword, bow and (eventually) spell-casting amulets. But the real fun in “OMD” comes from delegating the destruction to traps you can set around the level. The game gives you something new to play with every time you complete a level, and as the environments increase in size and intricacy, so do the weapons and means — sticky floor tiles, springboards that launch enemies into nearby pits, spike-shooting wall contraptions, hirable archers — at your disposal. Though your funds for purchasing defenses are limited, “OMD” lets you construct whatever combination of terror you can dream up, and the options are vast. All you have to do is work fast: Brief breaks between enemy waves afford some breathing room, but most of them are mercilessly short, so you’ll often have to build defenses while simultaneously getting your hands (and weapons) dirty. The combination of frantic action and flexible strategy makes “OMD” an absolute blast to play, and while there’s no multiplayer or co-op option, a lengthy campaign and some good reasons to play it again — namely, revisiting harder versions of levels with traps you hadn’t unlocked the first time through — provide an easy return on investment.

Games 10/4/11: Rage, Tetris: Axis, Rochard, Mercury Hg

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

John Carmack is to game programming what Steve Jobs is to consumer electronics, so when a new game releases under his watch and brings with it a new game engine over which he also presided, it’s a bellwether moment for the future of game design and technology.

And if you don’t care about any of that, “Rage” is a pretty good time as well.

“Rage” will draw superficial comparisons to “Fallout” insofar that it’s a first-person, open-world shooter set primarily in a post-apocalyptic wasteland teeming with mutants, oppressive authority figures and some colorful settlers bent on fighting both groups back.

But where “Fallout” functioned as a role-playing game whose storytelling and scope compensated for shoddy shooting mechanics, “Rage” is a pure action game that borrows from but doesn’t lean on the wasteland motif. Ammo is copious, your inventory bottomless, and while you will gather materials for purposes of engineering some nice special items and weapons (drivable RC car bombs, for instance), scavenging never feels as central to the experience as it did in “Fallout.”

More to the point, though — and thanks to that shiny new engine — the action in “Rage” is polished in all the ways “Fallout’s” wasn’t. Beyond the occasional lengthy load screen, “Rage” feels supremely polished, looking great (artistically as well as technically, thanks to some inspired post-apocalyptic town designs) and purring at 60 frames per second without hiccup and regardless of how big the environment is or how many enemies are crowding it. Controls are similarly dexterous — a good thing, because while authority figures display some intelligence in their shootouts with you, the mutants have zero qualms about rushing you at top speed. “Rage’s” weapons and movement always feel crisp, and death never comes because the game’s technical limitations fail you.

That goes as well for the driving controls, which comprise a surprisingly large portion of the game. “Rage’s” open wasteland is significantly more perilous than its smaller environments, and while you’re welcome to traverse on foot whenever you wish, it’s much safer to grab a buggy, outfit it with missiles and take your chances with that. “Rage’s” vehicles are built to leap large gaps and withstand a beating on the way down, which lends itself well to some exhilarating chases and shootouts against teams of enemy vehicles across rocky terrain. All that’s polished about the shooting applies similarly to the driving: It’s fast, smooth and extremely responsive even when physics make you pay for driving too recklessly.

“Rage’s” driving controls are so good, in fact, they comprise the entirety of the game’s simple but enjoyably mindless competitive multiplayer (four players, online only), which plays like a cross between “Twisted Metal” and wasteland “Mario Kart.” The omission of any kind of competitive shooting component is bound to disappoint, but in its place is a suite of co-op missions (two players, online or splitscreen) that allow you to live out the tales of other characters you meet in the single-player campaign. Given how engaging “Rage’s” characters often are, that’s a worthy trade-off.

Either way, the campaign, at 15 to 30-plus hours long, is “Rage’s” centerpiece. Structurally, it’s flat, with pedestrian objectives and missions that introduce a constant need to backtrack between your current town and the wasteland. Taking on multiple side missions at any given time is highly recommended, as it allows you to complete multiple objectives before doubling back. But even in this instance, it’s pretty clear “Rage’s” story would get pretty old pretty fast if it didn’t have such a terrific game engine to keep it going.

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Tetris: Axis
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $30

It’s pretty hard to screw up “Tetris” at this point, and no one has a better track record with the brand than Nintendo.

Sure enough, if all you desire is some traditional “Tetris,” you’ll find it in “Tetris: Axis” — same shapes, scoring system, objective and all.

And if you want a dozen-plus other variations of “Tetris,” ranging from tweaks on the original formula to bizarre experiments that go off the deep end, good news: You’ll find those here as well.

For its part, and via a really clumsy menu interface, “Axis” positions two modes — traditional Marathon and Fever — as its main pillars. Marathon needs no introduction, but Fever feels like the “Tetris” equivalent to what “Pac-Man Championship Edition” was to “Pac-Man.” There’s a time limit, and you’re mostly playing traditional “Tetris.” But configurable power-ups change the way the board behaves when you clear them as part of a line, and you’ll want to clear lines of a single color if you want to activate color mode and score some serious points.

Those factors, combined with the ticking clock, make Fever a vastly different game despite its resemblance to traditional “Tetris.” The short length of a typical game also makes it entirely too easy to try one more time for a higher score. That’s in stark contrast to Marathon mode, which can go on for more than an hour if you’re good, and if one alternative mode had to stand out above the rest, Nintendo picked exactly the right one.

(Incidentally, though “Axis” supports eight-player online competitive play, only a few modes — Fever among them — receive online leaderboard support, and you have to upload your score manually. Better than nothing, but hardly ideal.)

Like most modern “Tetris” games, “Axis” also supports battle play against the computer or friends (eight players, locally or online). Tweaked modes like Survival (smaller grid that’s filling from the bottom as well as top), Master (pieces fall at top speed right from the start) and Sprint (fill 40 lines as quickly as possible) also feature traditional “Tetris” play with small twists.

And then there’s the stuff that’s just weird. Stage Racer Plus stars you as a single piece and tasks you with falling through as much of an obstacle course as you can without getting caught. Fit, meanwhile, shifts to a top-down perspective and tasks you with filling square grids, Tanagrams style, before time expires. In Jigsaw, you’re dropping shapes in order to complete a jigsaw puzzle or match an arrangement on the second screen, while Shadow Wide asks you to assemble objects by quickly filling in their shadows with pieces and doing so with minimal spillage outside the shadow boundaries.

But “Axis” really lets the crazy flag fly when incorporating the 3DS’ augmented reality capabilities, which allow the system to project a “Tetris” grid on any flat surface in your real world. AR Marathon plays like traditional “Tetris,” except with a much smaller grid and a special block that, when part of a cleared line, clears the rest of the grid as well. The (literal) twist is that whenever this happens, the grid rotates its axis, which means you need to move the system’s camera in kind if you want to view the grid from the front.

The ingenuous AR Climber, meanwhile, tasks you with cobbling falling pieces into a continuous platform that allows a little running man to scale an endless circling staircase up a tower. As he circles the AR tower, so must you, so don’t even think of sitting down while playing this if you want to do well. Until someone dreams up a Kinect “Tetris” game, this is the best (if dizziest) “Tetris”-induced workout you’ll ever have.

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Rochard
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Sony Online Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (suggestive themes, mild language, fantasy violence)
Price: $10

Sidescrolling puzzle-platformers have flooded the downloadable market over the last few years, but there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing when the quality bar is this high. “Rochard” gets its name from lead character John Rochard, a salt-of-the-universe astro-miner miner who turns superman when his crew comes under attack by space bandits. The game eventually outfits you with traditional firepower and explosives, but for a good while, your only means of defense are a device that changes gravity on the fly and a tractor beam that can push, pull and throw objects. “Rochard” presents combat applications for both, but the real treat comes from the clever ways you must use the beam and gravity (and, eventually, other gadgets) to safely traverse from room to room. Reliable controls, believable physics, sensible puzzle design and generous checkpoints make for a game that’s universally accessible. But “Rochard” isn’t afraid to make you work, filling levels with enemies and puzzles that require timing and controller finesse as well as brainpower to overcome. (That goes triple when, as occasionally happens, the gravity reverses and you must play upside down.) “Rochard’s” audiovisual presentation is terrific, with a funny voice cast and a great look that will remind many of “Team Fortress 2.” The lengthy adventure easily commands the $10 asking price, and if you’re up for it, the harder puzzles standing in the way of bonus collectables — along with a special trophy for speed runners — make it worth replaying once and possibly twice.

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Mercury Hg
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $5

To get a quick picture of “Mercury Hg,” imagine the classic Labyrinth board game in which you rotate the game board to move a ball around and (ideally) keep it from peril while guiding it to the exit. Now replace the ball with a temperamental glob of mercury that’s prone to wobbling, shape-shifting, spilling and splitting into multiple smaller globs you must manage simultaneously. Then replace the square board with bizarrely-shaped boards teeming with numerous useful and dangerous gadgets that alter the glob or place it in peril, and set that board to bounce to the beat of the game’s music or your own custom soundtrack. At long last, you have “Mercury Hg,” a reboot of the awesome PSP and Wii puzzle series that feels right at home on PSN and Xbox Live. “Hg” receives a predictable graphical bump with the move to HD, but it’s the other amenities — a better analog stick (or, if you prefer, adjustable SIXAXIS support on the PS3), custom soundtrack support and two sets of online leaderboards (clear time and total score) per level — that benefit it most. At 60 deep, “Hg” doesn’t have as many levels as the last retail “Mercury” game, which had 160. But at $5, it also doesn’t cost nearly as much, and the leaderboard support — along with how easy “Hg” makes it to replay a level in hopes of shaving just a few seconds off that last clear time — means these 60 levels go a longer way than those 160 ever did.

Games 9/27/11: Kirby Mass Attack, The ICO and Shadow of the Colossus Collection, Burnout Crash!, Red Bull X-Fighters

Kirby Mass Attack
For: Nintendo DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $30

“Kirby Canvas Curse” was such a door-busting revelation for touchscreen gaming that for some, it remains — six years and many great games later — the class of the Nintendo DS library.

To say it’s nice to finally have a spiritual successor to that game is what we in the business like to refer to as an understatement.

First things first: “Kirby Mass Attack” doesn’t recycle “Curse,” which tasked players with indirectly controlling Kirby by drawing freeform platforms, walls, ramps, loops and any other scribble that could safely escort him from A to Z. There is some of that, but it’s more literal, with as many as 10 Kirbies following any path you draw regardless of that path’s physics (so long as the path doesn’t send them straight into walls or other obstacles).

The rub, of course, is that part where you’re controlling as many as 10 Kirbies at one time.

As a predictably silly story explains, Kirby has been split into multiple smaller and less capable versions of himself. When “Attack” begins, you assume control of a single downsized Kirby, who recruits up to nine twins to his party by collecting fruit and other power-ups scattered around what otherwise are your typical 2D platformer stages. (Think “Super Mario Bros.” or Kirby’s more traditional adventures.)

As one becomes two and eventually 10, “Attack” turns into a surprisingly coherent mash-up between platformer, “Canvas Curse” variant and real-time strategy game. When the Kirbies encounters enemies, you can tap on the enemy to instruct all Kirbies to march forth and attack. If you need to multitask, you can tap and drag individual Kirbies to fling them at enemies and anything else that requires their attention at the same time.

In the wrong hands, the idea would stale quickly. But that was true as well of “Curse,” which started small but grew more and more elaborate by parlaying its simple concepts into a ridiculous collection of clever implementations and scenarios.

“Attack” isn’t spotless: Some levels simply ask you to stock up on Kirbies and mindlessly fling them at one enemy or object after another. But far more than not, it flashes that same level of imagination and willingness to try anything and everything that’s possible with the quirky mash-up it’s created. “Attack” sends the Kirbies on a satisfyingly lengthy adventure, and even with the occasional dud level in play, the novelty never outstays its welcome.

“Attack” borrows another inspired page from “Curse’s” playbook by giving dedicated players a ton of incentive to go back play it again. Every level hides coins in secret areas well outside the default path from entrance to exit, and the truly obsessive can attempt to nab each level’s bronze (don’t let any Kirbies die), silver (don’t let any get knocked out) and gold (no damage whatsoever) stars.

The stars are good for bragging rights, but the coins unlock a trove of bonus games, including a “Kirby”-themed Whack-a-Mole variant, a pinball game and a 2D space shooter.

As you’d have to expect, these aren’t full-sized  games. But they aren’t exactly diminutive, either: The pinball game has multiple tables, the space shooter multiple boss fights, and even the most simplistic games have high score tables and multiple levels of play. If Nintendo relented and started making mobile games, some of these could easily justify a buck spent at the App Store. For the price of free and as reward for a job well done playing one of the DS’ best games, they’re a steal and then some.

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The ICO and Shadow of the Colossus Collection
For: Playstation 3
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (Blood, Violence)
Price: $40

With respect to the excellent high-definition remaster collections that preceded it over the last year or so, “The ICO and Shadow of the Colossus Collection” is and probably will remain this movement’s high-water mark. Amongst the thousands of games that have appeared since “ICO” and “Shadow of the Colossus” first appeared, none has done what they do quite like how they do it. If you’ve wanted to play something like them in HD, only the genuine articles can help get it done.

To this day, “ICO” remains one of a very precious few games that found a way to make escort missions — those traditionally dreadful sections where you have to drag some defenseless person around and fail the mission if the dead weight wanders off and dies — fun.

In fact, “ICO” builds an entire game around the idea — an impressive achievement by itself, but exponentially so considering the person in your care is even more fragile than your average escort mission partner.

It works, and well, because “ICO” is significantly more invested in elaborate environmental puzzle design than combat. Keeping your companion safe occasionally means fighting off the monsters who try to take her away, but mostly it means searching a large area for a path you can cross and a way to help your less capable companion do the same and meet you on the other side. The scale and design of the areas, coupled with a soft visual style and some strikingly sparse audio design, lend a unique exterior to the unique interior, and the combination of those forces is an adventure that truly feels adventurous.

Though the unique graphical style allowed “ICO” to age more gracefully than most PS2 games did, the high-definition bump — along with widescreen support, an optional stereoscopic 3D presentation and the addition of trophies and other PS3 amenities — is noticeable and welcome.

In the case of “Colossus,” though, the remastering is an absolute blessing.

“Colossus” migrates “ICO’s” visual and aural style to a vastly different world — one crawling with colossi who stand many screens tall and act on their own whims while players climb and traipse around them like living levels. Every colossus has its own mannerisms, makeup and weaknesses that allow your human-sized character to overcome it. The adventure amounts to little more than a game-long boss gauntlet, but the creative colossi designs made for a gauntlet that was challenging, visually awesome, tonally diverse and unlike anything that ever preceded it.

But that ambition carried a price, and the fee materialized as one seriously troubled framerate. The choppiness that plagued “Colossus” on the PS2 was acceptable only because no other game in existence had ever done this, but it was bothersome enough that even being one of a kind wasn’t enough to offset the framerate headaches that plagued many who tried it.

With this revamp, those headaches are gone. “Colossus” gets the same boost and benefits as “ICO,” but that steady, smooth framerate is by far the best present under this entire collection’s tree.

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Burnout Crash!
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Criterion/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)
Price: $10

For all “Burnout” has done for arcade racing, the Crash mode — a minigame in which you engineer the most epically expensive car-crash chain reaction you possibly can — remains its arguable hallmark. “Burnout Crash!” re-imagines the concept by replacing fast 3D action with a slower, top-down 2D style that more closely resembles a puzzle game than a high-octane driving game. Expensive wrecks remain the ultimate goal, but “Crash” adds a few additional objectives to each level, and a recharging Aftertouch system — which allows you to reignite your car and prolong a wreck — means these crashes are more methodically drawn out than the blistering collisions in a traditional “Burnout” game. Disappointed? If you come into “Crash” expecting speed and thrills, you likely will be. But taken purely as a puzzle game that merely borrows from rather than mimics the brand, “Crash” has plenty to like. There’s considerably more strategy than initially meets the eye when it comes to landing the skill shots and score combos necessary to master each intersection’s objectives, and while “Crash” is lenient about letting players advance through its levels, fulfilling every objective is a tall endeavor that engenders plenty of replays. The replay value is especially high for those who have friends also playing the game. “Crash’s” offline-only multiplayer allows only one person at a time to play, but its integration of EA’s excellent Autolog social networking platform makes it fun and easy to compare intersection damage reports and challenge your online friends to wreak pricier havoc than you.

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Red Bull X-Fighters
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC, Playstation 3/PSP (via PSN Minis)
From: Xendex/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild language, mild violence)
Price: $10

It’s hard to describe “Red Bull X-Fighters” without blowing a kiss over to “Trials HD,” because much of what “RBXF” does was done two years ago in “Trials.” It’s a motorbike game, the events are a mix of stunt challenges and time trials, and even the design and semi-diagonal camera perspective are more than a little familiar. Fortunately, while “RBXF” isn’t fresh, it at least copies the idea competently. The bike physics are believable without being as unforgiving as they were in “Trials,” and the controls are a textbook case of easy to learn and tough to master. Basic riding and trick execution is elementary, but popping subtle wheelies for speed boosts and expertly timing an advanced trick that requires some seriously awkward simultaneous button presses (RT+RB+LT+Y+B) is anything but simple. “RBXF’s” bigger problem is content: There’s no multiplayer, nor is leaderboard integration anywhere near as polished as it was in “Trials.” There are fewer events and less variety to them as well. Trying to achieve gold trophy scores in every event is a beastly challenge that will keep the right kind of player busy for a good while, but those happy to just settle for bronze and go home can feasibly see all of “RBXF’s” tracks and events in a few hours’ time.

Games 9/13/11: Nicktoons MLB, Resistance 3, Rise of Nightmares, Star Fox 64 3D, Bloodrayne: Betrayal

Nicktoons MLB
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii and Nintendo DS
From: High Voltage/2K Play
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $40

If you’ve been wondering what the awesome arcade baseball game “The Bigs” has been up to since 2009, here’s your answer. “Nicktoons MLB” isn’t as feature-complete as “The Bigs” was, but simply by borrowing its engine and keeping it intact, it leapfrogs most kids’ baseball games in terms of presenting a great game of baseball.

It also, by mixing semi-realistic major league players and stadiums with the likes of Spongebob Squarepants and Stimpy, is kind of hilarious without even trying.

Perhaps the best thing about “Nicktoons” is that if you want to play a straight-faced game of baseball, you mostly can. Full rosters aren’t available, but all 30 MLB teams’ starting lineups (and two pitchers each) are available. And while the arcade-style flavor and players’ exaggerated physiques make towering home runs and spectacular catches the headliners, everything you need for manufactured runs and pitchers’ duels is here. The pitching controls allow you to paint corners and toy with hitters’ sweet spots for extra turbo. That turbo — earned through plate discipline as well as pitching — can be applied to baserunning and fielding as well as pitching and hitting, allowing you to beat teams with defense and the hit-and-run as well as the long ball.

Though “Nicktoons” softens the difficulty curve — if you play “The Bigs” on medium difficulty, you’ll want to set this one to hard — it makes no concession with regard to how it plays.

The twist, instead, is the ability for Nickelodeon characters to share the same field and uniforms as the Major Leaguers. “Nicktoons” offers a pickup game-style format where you pick an MLB or fantasy team and take turns (either with the computer or a friend via local multiplayer) picking Nick characters to fill half the roster. A Showdown mode allows similar roster management, only with one team solely comprised of Nick characters taking on an all-MLB squad.

“Nicktoons” provides six Nick-themed fantasy stadiums, but the game is never more amusing than when it presents, with a reasonably straight face, the likes of Invader Zim belting a double off Yankee Stadium’s wall and sliding safely under a Derek Jeter tag. “Nicktoons'” visual presentation of this impossible mixture is a wonderfully seamless compromise between realism and cartoon, and while the game’s commentary is a bit repetitive, it’s hard not to laugh when GIR interrupts Perch Perkins’ play-by-play with some seriously nonsensical color commentary.

(Naturally, while “Nicktoons” includes a nice array of popular and obscure Nick characters, there’s bound to be an omission that bothers you. Your mileage, of course, will vary.)

More conclusively bothersome is the drop in content from “The Bigs” to “Nicktoons.” Though all 30 teams have representation, only six MLB stadiums are available — a puzzling omission considering they’ve all been modeled for “The Bigs.” Offline multiplayer is limited to two players, down from four, and online multiplayer is non-existent. The game’s tournament mode — a ladder-style gauntlet in which you must take down every MLB and fantasy team to be crowned champion — is excellent, but it’s not as deep as the season/story mode hybrid that is “The Bigs'” centerpiece. The amazing Home Run Pinball is reincarnated as a fun but more subdued target challenge, and the skill challenge games are gone.

For its part, 2K Play at least prices “Nicktoons” $20 cheaper, so the feature downgrade stings less than it normally would.

A note about “Nicktoons'” optional Kinect controls: They aren’t very good. Pitch selection and placement is way too difficult, and some lag means competent contact hitting comes down to guesswork as well as timing.

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Resistance 3
For: Playstation 3
From: Insomniac/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $60

For all who thought “Resistance 2” was a case of a game losing its nerve and simply fitting in, “Resistance 3” has good news: It agrees.

That carry-two-weapon-at-a-time limit from “R2?” It’s gone. Outside of one story-mandated occurrence, when you find a weapon, it’s yours to keep — to the eventual tune of a 12-weapon cache that’s easy to manage and so much more fun to maneuver than the convenient but boring two-weapon maximum.

If you’re familiar with developer Insomniac — masterminds of “Ratchet and Clank” as well as “Resistance” — you also know weapon design is their forte. “R3’s” magnum isn’t just a pistol: Its bullets also explode when you pull a secondary trigger. The stock rifle can tag enemies and pelt them from around corners with homing bullets, and the already-dangerous Atomizer’s secondary function creates what is, by any other name, a black hole. Every firearm in “R3” has some bonus ingenuity in its standard or alternate fire modes, and you can upgrade each twice — simply by using them — to do even more outlandishly useful things.

That, to understate things, is why it’s nice not to have to choose only two. “R3” takes returning “R2” semi-hero Joseph Capelli from Oklahoma to New York, and the clashes that await veer seamlessly between close-quarters combat and immense shootouts in wide-open battlefields. “R3’s” gun selection runs a similar gamut, and the ability to freely swap between a sniper rifle and a shotgun means the game is similarly free to change scope whenever it pleases. You’ll always have the best weapon for the job.

But it’s another callback — a reliance on finding healthpacks instead of waiting for health to magically recharge after a period of inactivity — that gives these shootouts a real sense of danger.

“R3” isn’t stingy when it comes to distributing healthpacks. But their availability is limited, and when you’re pinned down in poor health and a school of Chimera is advancing on you, you have to find a way to outwit them instead of simply hide out, regenerate your health, shoot indiscriminately and repeat. This direction is so much more fun that it’s a wonder so many shooters went the regenerating health route over these last few years.

Those factors, in concert with the flexible scope and the Chimeran A.I. — slightly smart, mostly bullheaded but dangerous enough that being bullheaded works in their favor — make “R3” an exciting mix of tactical and run-and-gun gameplay that doesn’t sell either approach short. The preceding two games laid the foundation for a big blowout this time around, and this game delivers exactly that.

“R3’s” multiplayer ambitions, meanwhile, have taken a step back. Competitive multiplayer supports 16 players instead of 60, and instead of a separate eight-player co-op mode, you get the option to play the campaign with a second player in tow.

The co-op isn’t recommended due to the way it mitigates the aforementioned danger effect and awkwardly wedges into the storyline, but “R3’s” competitive multiplayer doesn’t suffer from the reduced player count. The gametypes are your standard match types with a tweak or two to accommodate the “Resistance” universe, but the ability to wield one-of-a-kind weapons on one side and Chimeran powers on the other is all the game needs to be a blast.

A note about “R3’s” Playstation Move compatibility: It works without incident. You’ll likely prefer the familiarity of the controller on harder difficulties and during multiplayer, but the fact that it’s debatable speaks volumes about the Move’s ability to accommodate first-person shooter controls.

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Rise of Nightmares
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, suggestive themes)
Price: $50

Give “Rise of Nightmares” an A for effort and an A+ for conviction. It marks a stark change of scenery (gruesome, story-driven horror instead of family-friendly minigames) for Kinect, it’s the first Kinect game to give players full range of motion, and it takes both breakthroughs and runs pretty wild with them.

Far more subjective is the grade it deserves for execution. It might impress you, it might bewilder or aggravate you. Or it might make perfect sense, because if there’s a genre where control inhibitions are an arguable asset, horror is it.

Though “Nightmares'” walking controls are predictably odd, the game — which plays out from a first-person perspective — at least makes them simple to understand. Standing still and facing forward keeps you still. Turning your torso left or right turns you onscreen, and putting a foot forward or backward and keeping it there sends you walking in that direction until you bring your foot back.

Simple or not, though, this still is bound to be the most trouble you’ve had walking since your toddler days. The Kinect will occasionally misread a motion and send you backpedaling when you mean to walk forward, and in tight spaces with odd geometry, it’s entirely easy (and dangerous) to bump into B, C and D when making a seemingly simple trek from A to E.

With some acclimation, though, it starts to feel somewhat (though never completely) natural. “Nightmares,” for its part, also assists by allowing you to automatically walk to interactive items in view — weapons, notes, doors and other usable objects — simply by extending a hand and reaching for them. Certain areas allow you to use a gesture to auto-walk, and when you’re close to enemies, raising your arms to fight also reorients you to face whomever is closest to you.

“Nightmares'” combat attains a similar level of clumsy immersion. You fight simply by mock-using whatever weapon you’re holding — swinging a knife, punching with brass knuckles, throwing projectiles and even using a hedge-clipping motion if you… yeah. A kicking motion also makes for a nice knockback attack.

You have a degree of control where your attacks land, and “Nightmares” factors limb damage into your enemies’ ability to fight back. But it’s never completely precise, and you’ll occasionally be reduced to flailing if things get dicey.

More than not, though, “Nightmares'” gesture recognition is on point, and the game takes advantage of its proficiency in some very clever ways. An enemy with an ear-piercing scream will destroy you unless you literally cover your ears. Deadly traps require you to run, duck, balance and dodge. A delicate piece of machinery needs a similarly delicate crank turn to work, and a hulking enemy who can hear but not see you will pummel you dead unless you remain still and completely silent. Put your real-life phone on vibrate, because if your Kinect’s microphone picks up any noise during these bits, your in-game character is toast. (How’s that for immersion?)

Moments like that are legitimately unsettling in “Nightmares,” which drops you into a mansion of “Saw”-like horrors and rarely puts you at ease once the lengthy story kicks into gear. The game establishes its setting and villains quickly, and the combination of clumsy controls and unstoppable enemies sniffing for you makes for an experience that’s extremely unique and very legitimately creepy. It’s every bit as inelegant as you’d expect a free-range Kinect game to be, but if you enjoy gaming’s experimental side and thirst for something different, this is bound to be one of the most unusual releases to surface during this very crowded holiday season.

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Star Fox 64 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $40

Some point soon, Nintendo has to reposition the fledgling 3DS as a go-to spot for new Nintendo games instead of revamped versions of games that were new under the Clinton administration.

But while we wait for that to happen, there’s nothing wrong with being impressed by “Star Fox 64 3D,” which quite dramatically freshens up the Nintendo 64 original without abandoning what made it so good in its time.

That’s kind of a big deal, because for reasons only Nintendo knows, there hasn’t been a “Star Fox” game since that wasn’t accompanied by some catch that made it something other than a simple, proper dogfighting game. And if this revamp proves anything to those only interested in a new game with new missions, it’s that the formula still works when the production values stay current.

If you’re the rare person who never played “Star Fox” but has an interest in this new edition, there’s little you need to know. “SF643D” is a third-person space dogfighter, and while it occasionally lets you fly the ship freely in a confined space, most missions take place on rails and keep you moving forward while allowing you to control your X and Y axes.

It shouldn’t sound complicated because it isn’t complicated, but it’s fun due to a high concentration of enemies to shoot and obstacles to dodge at a relatively fast pace. Completing one of “SF643D’s” branching storyline trees isn’t wildly difficult, but it isn’t a cakewalk either, and achieving gold medal scores is a legitimate test of your ability to efficiently neutralize enemies, keep your allies alive and stay out of trouble yourself while also navigating a level’s trickier spots for rings and other pickups.

Treated well, that’s a formula that won’t age. And as remakes go, “SF643D” does its part to make an old game feel young again.

Most obvious is the visual makeover, which is significant. “SF643D” transforms an early N64 game into something that looks right at home on the 3DS. It isn’t just a case of new textures, either: Some sections — boss fights in particular — have received what look like ground-up rebuilds, featuring significant leaps forward in animation and composition as well as obvious things like textures and polygons.

Thanks to the 3DS’ second screen, the makeover extends to the interface, which also takes customary advantage of the touchscreen. When your allies and enemies speak to you, their faces comprise the entire bottom screen instead of a small widow, and they’ve received a night-and-day upgrade over their N64 counterparts. That may sound trivial, but it’s the tip of an iceberg’s worth of interface polishing, and if you’ve developed an attachment to the “Star Fox” universe, seeing these characters come alive this way in a proper game is a treat.

The 3DS-enabled enhancements produce mixed results. The 3D effect is a perfect fit for a game in this genre, and it makes “SF643D’s” visual upgrade pop even more. The best thing about the optional accelerometer aiming controls, though, is that they’re optional.

The most clever implementation comes via the inner camera, which snaps your picture and shares your dismayed reactions with friends who shoot your ship down in “SF643D’s” four-player wireless multiplayer. Unfortunately, you’ll already likely be in the same room as your enemies, because the game lacks online multiplayer. That’s a severe bummer, because while “SF643D’s” multiplayer is pretty bare-bones, it’s still fun, and the ability to play online would have done wonders for making this feel like a truly contemporary remake.

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BloodRayne: Betrayal
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: WayForward/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Teen (suggestive themes, mild language, violence, blood and gore)
Price: $15

Some shaky games and awful movies left little doubt that a change of scenery would be good for the half-human, half-vampiric Rayne. Whether it’s also good for you comes down to whether you tolerate punishment or embrace it. “BloodRayne: Betrayal” takes what formerly was a traditional action series and re-imagines it as a lavishly animated 2D sidescroller with cartoony but graphically violent (in a “How did this get a Teen rating” kind of way) look. That animation is elaborate to an arguable fault, particularly when you’re trying to dodge peril and one Rayne’s attack animations creates a slight but critical lag in control sensitivity. Responsiveness is at a premium, too, because “Betrayal” is stiffly difficult in a “Mega Man 9” kind of way and occasionally unreasonably hard when it asks you to make some very precise jumps with jump and dash controls that aren’t so precise themselves. Those who pride themselves on mastering cruelly challenging games will get their money’s worth several times over, thanks to a campaign that’s tough to beat and a scoring/ranking system that’s merciless and demoralizing. (Don’t be surprised if you never grade higher than an F, even if you finish the game.) Mere mortals, however, should be advised: “Betrayal” has no issue with crushing your spirit, be it by design or due to the aforementioned issues, and if you don’t go into it hungry for a beating — not simply tolerant of one, but hungry for it — you’re bound to get chewed up, spit out and left wanting your $15 back.

Games 9/6/11: Driver: San Francisco, God of War: Origins Collection, Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon

Driver: San Francisco
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC, Wii
From: Ubisoft Reflections/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, language, sexual themes, violence)
Price: $60

At long last, the formerly-great “Driver” series can lay claim to being formerly washed up. “Driver: San Francisco” is polished, pretty and loaded with a kitchen sink’s worth of arcade racing mission and mode types. It’s also guided by a storyline that, without breaking series continuity, is completely crazy in an wholly, startlingly beneficial way.

The prologue shows all, but here’s the gist: You, as series mainstay John Tanner, are in a coma. But your comatose state gives you a wild ability to not only observe San Franciscans’ activity from a bird’s-eye view, but “shift” into any driver on the road and assume control over his or her body (and, by extension, vehicle).

“D:SF’s” appetite for polished interfaces makes this shifting mechanic a breeze to use: One button press shifts out of body and atop a living city map, and shifting into another body is as simple as highlighting a vehicle and pressing the same button. The game’s prioritization of fun over everything else means that, outside of special challenges in which you must succeed on driving talent alone, you can shift whenever, however and as often as you please.

Immediately, shifting is fun because it allows you to drive all kinds of vehicles (licensed cars, tow trucks, semis and everything in between) and jump into the minds of numerous trivial and important side characters. (“D:SF’s” storyline, presented somewhat like a weekly police drama, utilizes good character development, great voice acting and surprisingly sharp humor to tame the implausibility monster it creates, and the clever writing trickles down to even the most idle of chatter between the most trivial of characters.)

At some point, though, you’ll unwittingly stumble into something that brings the shift mechanic’s true potential into full light. It might be in the body of a cop forced to take down four street racers alone — a task made much easier if you quickly shift into oncoming traffic to create a roadblock before shifting back to finish the takedown. Perhaps it’ll be during a team race, where you must quick-shift between two cars in the same race in order to place them first and second. You can always use raw driving skill to complete challenges the hard way, but “D:SF’s” scope, interface and total allowance for player ingenuity creates a confluence of racing and real-time strategy that’s too much fun to ignore.

It helps immensely that the game’s other facets also carry their weight. “D:SF” looks terrific, and its vehicles finds a great balance between weighty and arcadey handling controls. More than 100 vehicles are on offer, and with some exceptions, you’re free to complete a myriad of mission types — stunt challenges, arrest/getaway missions, checkpoint/open-ended races, tailing/escort missions and more — with whatever ride you like. Fleeing four police cruisers in a bus is a fool’s errand, but “D:SF” won’t mind if you try. And because just about everything you do (even when failing missions) earns you experience points toward the purchase of new cars and upgrades, you’re never really penalized for trying something ridiculous.

“D:SF” nicely migrates most of its finer points to the online (eight players) and local (two) multiplayer side. Traditional races are available, but other modes — tag and co-op cop/criminal chases, to name two — take advantage of the open-ended map. Unless you opt for a pure race, the shift mechanic is fully in play for all players at once, and the ensuing chaos doesn’t break the game like you might guess it would. Should you unlock every last reward in the solo campaign, a separate experience points and rewards track awaits on the multiplayer side.

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God of War: Origins Collection
For: Playstation 3
From: Ready at Dawn/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity)
Price: $40

After Sony rounded the Playstation 2 “God of War” games into a terrific Playstation 3 compilation two years ago, it was all but written that this two-pack, which brings the series’ two Playstation Portable entrants to the bigger screen, would someday follow.

But if you never played those games the first time around, “God of War: Origins Collection” represents more than simply a nice effort on Sony’s part to make the entirety of the franchise available on one system. It also — thanks to the efforts of a developer that wasn’t afraid to leave its mark on a series it didn’t create — allows those who don’t own a PSP to see the series in a slightly but noticeably different light.

Lest we get carried away, neither half of “Origins” — 2008’s “Chains of Olympus” and last year’s “Ghost of Sparta” — marks anything close to a radical departure. Both games star you as the same old Kratos, who, at least initially, uses his same old Blades of Chaos to wreak the same old havoc on a familiar cast of human, inhuman and mythical enemies. Gameplay remains a mix of 80 percent combat and 20 percent platforming and environmental puzzle solving, and if you’ve played any “God of War” game enough to remember the basics, the brief tutorials that open both games will be completely unnecessary.

With that said, though, the distinctions are there, and not simply in the form of new environments, boss enemies and magic spells. The pace at which “Sparta” shifts players between combat and platforming is a series best, and while “God of War III” operated on a scale these games couldn’t possibly match, the platforming controls and level designs in these games are significantly fundamentally superior to “GOW3’s” effort. A weapon introduced near the end of “Olympus” (no spoilers) may be the best thing Kratos had ever wielded, and a new chase mechanic in “Sparta” is — while sorely underutilized — responsible for some of that game’s highlights.

Perhaps most interesting are the bold steps both games take to add some overdue definition to Kratos’ beginnings (“Olympus,” which is a prequel to the original game) and family life (both games but particularly “Sparta,” which takes place between the first two games and introduces us to Kratos’ brother). The console games have painted Kratos into a corner as an unlikable brute with cloudy intentions, but these games do a terrific job of giving us some sorely needed color without feeling completely out of character.

Because the same developer responsible for making these games also handled porting them to the PS3, it isn’t terribly surprising that “Origins'” migration is a smooth one.

Lest you have unrealistic expectations, this isn’t a case of a game’s graphics getting a ground-up overhaul, but instead an attempt to transfer assets designed for a tiny screen to something much bigger. A predictable downgrade in detail in certain respects (characters’ faces in particular) reflects that.

But because most of “Origins'” action takes place from a distance and at a frantic pace, details like these aren’t worth much concern. In action at full speed, both games look like legitimate big-screen games, and the compensation for that loss of detail — a framerate locked in at 60 frames per second and ground-up support for 3D hardware if you have it — more than makes up for the occasional slightly blurry texture. In terms of presentation and control refinement, “Origins” is a first-class translation.

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Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Backbone Entertainment/345 Games/Comedy Central
ESRB Rating: Mature (strong language, blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes)
Price: $10

“Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon” gets the rare distinction of being a game that animates better than the cartoon on which it’s based, but if you’re familiar with the low-rent Comedy Central cartoon, you also know that’s a small hurdle to clear. You also know what to expect from the game’s audiovisual department — namely, ugly characters, gallons of blood, bizarre weaponry (desk laps, rubber chicken rockets, propane tank shooters) and several premium cable channels’ worth of blue language flying freely and repeated ad nauseam. Whether you love it, hate it or simply enjoy the bewilderment it engenders, the presentation is the most unique thing about “Apocalypsegeddon,” which otherwise combines a decent sidescroller and a decent twin-stick shooter into something that is neither exemplary nor bad. “Apocalypsegeddon” helps itself by providing three playable characters and outfitting each with upgradable attributes that enhance their abilities without  marginalizing their unique strengths and weaknesses. The game also prioritizes co-op play (online/offline, four players) insofar that it’s the default mode of play throughout the campaign. Turning it off or setting up a friends-only game is easy, but a stiff (and erratically spiking) default difficulty means you’ll probably want to play with someone who can share the load and revive you when you succumb. The loose difficulty progression and mostly non-existent enemy A.I. work in concert with the cheap presentation to form a game that never comes together completely, but if you love the cartoon or can’t get enough twin-stick action, “Apocalypsegeddon” is (faint praise alert) certainly competent.

Games 8/30/11: No More Heroes: Heroes' Paradise, Quarrel

No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise
For: Playstation 3
From: AQ Interactive/Marvelous Entertainment/Konami
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, crude humor, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language)
Price: $40

If you wanted to love “No More Heroes” on the Wii but couldn’t get around its logistical roadblocks, the least interesting news about this overdue port may also be its best news.

Before we continue, let’s restate that: “No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise” is a port of the first “Heroes” game. The game’s new developer and publishers haven’t dramatically remixed it or spruced up what ailed it back in 2008, and while the graphics benefit greatly from the high-definition bump, that’s exactly what they are — a high-definition presentation of visual assets from the Wii version. It suffices just fine, in no small credit to a unique graphic style seen most commonly in motion comics, but you won’t be floored.

If anything — following an opening sequence that gives you an enticing taste of “Paradise’s” combat, mainline mission structure and storytelling flair — you might be confused. Because between those missions lies perhaps the worst open world design ever devised, and it arrives on the PS3 fully intact and still seemingly incomplete.

“Paradise” mandates that you take jobs (minigames) and side missions to fund your career as an up-and-coming assassin, and it spreads those tasks out across a huge map that’s perplexingly empty between destination spots. Driving through town once is, thanks to motorbike controls that give “stiff” a bad name, a bit of a chore. Doing it ad nauseam to play so-so minigames that eventually allow you to get to the next mission is just tedious, and “Paradise” missed a major opportunity to just do away with the open world or at least make it skippable via menus.

As with “Heroes,” though, what lies at the heart of this barren environment is what makes “Paradise” worth the trips through it. The game’s combat — doled out with your fists, feet and a beam katana that by any other name is an off-brand lightsaber — is simple but fun in an outrageously violent B-movie kind of way. The satisfaction of ripping through an army of no-name thugs is matched on a different scale by the mainline missions’ final encounters, which bring some terrifically weird character designs to a head with tense (if often unwieldy) one-on-one fights.

The boss designs work in tandem with monologues, dialogues, style choices and anything-goes narration to create a world that’s confidently capable of pulling double duty as a heart-on-sleeve spectacular and a fearless self-parody. Completely unrelated Influences come together to create discordant harmonies in “Paradise,” and the glee with which it all happens makes it easy to appreciate the game’s stylistic misses almost as much as its hits.

As should be no surprise, “Paradise” supports the Move controller in the same fashion that “Heroes” supported the Wii remote. But a lack of refinement in this area means that the camera issues that plagued this control scheme once plague it all over again here. There’s no 1:1 fidelity between the Move wand and the katana, and the annoying motion needed to recharge the katana is actually less responsive than it was on the Wii because the Move wand wasn’t built with jerky movements like this in mind.

Fortunately, “Paradise” had the good sense to include compatibility with traditional controllers, and the second thumbstick does wonders with its allowance of manual camera control and increased responsiveness with regard to certain finishing attacks. Playing this way undoes some of the novelty that made “Heroes” special in its first incarnation, but if the novelty of the Wii remote has already long worn off, it’s hardly a loss.

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Quarrel
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Indiagames Limited/UTV Ignition
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $5 for deluxe version; lite version available for free

The conceptually brilliant (and arguably excessively cheerful) “Quarrel” is what happens when Boggle and RISK have a child. The setup might sound familiar: Up to four armies share adjacent territories with one another, and dominating a “Quarrel” match comes down to wiping out the other armies before they eliminate yours. In this case, though, a battle comes down to eight random letters and one chance to build a better word than the opposing army. The more troops you have occupying the conflicted square, the more letters you can use to build your word, and the winning battalion can (depending on circumstance) take the square completely, whittle it down to one opposing troop, or make opposing troops switch allegiances. “Quarrel’s” cheerful presentation is a bit too caffeinated for its own good, but the actual game is a polished execution of a seriously great idea. You can play a base game of “Quarrel” for free, but most of the good stuff — a campaign, match customization, daily challenges, most of the maps and characters — is available only in the deluxe edition. Unfortunately, neither edition includes any kind of multiplayer, which might be a deal-killer given the influences in play and the state of word games on iOS. The A.I. is reasonably good, but here’s hoping multiplayer tops the to-do list for future updates.

Games 8/23: Deus Ex: Human Revolution, The Adventures of Shuggy, Anomaly Warzone Earth HD

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Eidos Montreal/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (intense violence, blood, sexual themes, strong language, drug reference, use of alcohol)
Price: $60

When we greeted “Deus Ex” as a liberator from a first-person shooter genre that badly needed a growth spurt, few probably predicted history would repeat itself 11 years later.

But here we are, neck-deep in a genre that’s reverted to old habits and covered them up with cinematic flimflam. And here’s “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” which holds so true to its pedigree that what was amazing then is amazing all over again now.

This isn’t immediately apparent, because while “Revolution” quickly establishes itself as a cover shooter — with a third-person perspective while in cover —  it also makes a point to let you know that attacking enemies at the front door is as viable a tactic as using stealth to neutralize them from behind. The cover interface makes complete use of the controller and requires some finger gymnastics when “Revolution’s” other systems are in play, but once you acquaint yourself, all the pieces — responsive controls, satisfying gunplay, intelligent enemy A.I. and an intuitive cover mechanic — are there.

“Revolution” complements this encouragement of freedom with a design that very ably suits it. In place of the same old corridors are open-ended areas with multiple paths straight through and around enemies. A tense and deceptively deep hacking minigame allows access to locked pathways, security cameras, sensitive data and other access restrictions, and you can move certain objects to create your own cover when cover isn’t readily available.

But it isn’t just “Revolution’s” levels that branch: It’s the whole game. True to the series’ lineage, “Revolution” operates around a role-playing core that’s built to accommodate your preferred attack style. In this instance, you can use experience points — accrued through everything from kills to finding secret passageways to completing side missions — to purchase bionic augmentations. (The story, set 25 years before the first game, explains all.)

“Revolution’s” augmentation selection is large and wonderfully diverse. Stealthy players can purchase an augmentation that briefly turn them invisible, for instance, while other augmentations let you see through walls, lift extremely heavy objects, and read other characters’ minds when in conversation with them. (Verbal manipulation, thanks to a great dialogue tree system, goes a long way here, which is why “Revolution” stocks an entire augmentation shelf dedicated to social mastery.)

The long list of augmentations works in concert with open-world hub cities and a massive, branching storyline — roughly five times the size of a typical shooter — to create an experience that truly feels tailor-made. Fans of the original expect nothing less, but if you’re new here, “Revolution’s” scope and freedom allowance might shock you. Engage in each cities’ side quests and dive into the ridiculous amount of discoverable exposition hiding behind locked doors and firewalls, and you’re looking at a 40-plus-hour investment that’s almost universally polished.

It’s merely a shame “Revolution” loses itself so badly whenever things come to a head in a boss fight. In contrast to everything that precedes and follows, these boss fights — enclosed shootouts against a massively overpowered enemy who can withstand an inhuman amount of firepower and has no issues firing explosives willy-nilly and unloading his or her own augmentations without rhythm or limitation — are a horridly rude awakening, especially if you’ve adopted a stealthy approach and don’t carry a ton of ammo. Outside of their infrequency, there is nothing good to say about these encounters, so you’ll just have to endure them to get back to everything else that makes “Revolution” so incredible.

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The Adventures of Shuggy
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Smudged Cat Games/Valcon Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (animated blood, comic mischief)
Price: $10

It happens every summer. Amid a glut of terrific downloadable games that fly off the virtual shelves under the generous promotional umbrella that is Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade, there drifts a ridiculously unlucky game that, despite being good or even great, gets instantly and thoroughly buried simply for releasing shortly before or after the campaign runs its course.

This year’s dishonoree, “The Adventures of Shuggy,” is especially unfortunate, because despite an outer shell that would suggest otherwise, it arguably outclasses the entire 2011 Summer of Arcade crop.

If you’re type of player to which “Shuggy” most explicitly caters, it may not even be close.

It certainly doesn’t look that way. “Shuggy” tells a cute but simple story about a vampire named Shuggy and the haunted castle he inherited and must clean out, and while the cartoony graphics are pleasant and certainly sufficient, they won’t drop jaws the way the likes of “Bastion” and “From Dust” can. Most of the game’s levels span no larger than a single screen, and the overriding goal of each level — collect all the gems — isn’t exactly groundbreaking.

But if you confuse the Flash-style graphics, bite-sized levels and older-than-Atari objective for a lack of ambition on “Shuggy’s” part, you’re letting vanity fool you. Simple and cute though the whole thing seems, the game is a beast in terms of physical and intellectual challenge.

Though the overriding gem-collecting objective holds steady, “Shuggy’s” gameplay parameters rather drastically vary from level to level. Sometimes, it’s 2D platforming at its most classic — jumping across pits and dodging enemies to collect each gem in a single run. But sometimes those levels take place upside down, asking you to be just as spry while also demanding you push the control stick left when old habits want to push it right. Occasionally, you have to do it at a 90-degree angle.

Other times, “Shuggy” asks you to rotate the entire level so that Shuggy lands on platforms and not spikes once gravity kicks back in. Frequently, you’ll have to time a jump while simultaneously rotating a level.

Yet other levels task you with manipulating multiple Shuggies, who must work in tandem to unlock some brilliantly devious cause-and-effect puzzles. They may or may not be observing the same laws of gravity while working together. Other times, when controlling one Shuggy, a crack in time will create ghost Shuggies, who both can help you (if you time certain cooperative actions to the cracks) or kill you (if you run into them and disrupt the space/time continuum).

These variants represent a sample of the laws obeyed in “Shuggy’s” 100-plus single-player levels, which liberally mix these and other parameters to create some absolutely maniacal challenges.

For the right crowd, though, the difficulty level is just right. “Shuggy” is a demanding endeavor, insofar that you have to collect every gem in one run without making any fatal mistakes. But the game takes a page from the similarly engrossing “Super Meat Boy” by providing unlimited lives and instantly restarting a level whenever you fail. The capacity for frustration is still there, but it’s extremely short-lived when you immediately can pop back up and give it another shot.

For those who enjoy working together, “Shuggy” includes an additional 36 levels that require a second player to complete. The co-op levels are offline only, but “Shuggy” includes online support by way of leaderboards and a two-player competitive gem race (also available offline) that dials down the intellectual demands in favor of a mindless but enjoyably frantic scramble.

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Anomaly Warzone Earth HD
Reviewed for: iPad
Also available for: iPhone/iPod Touch, Windows PC, Mac,
From: 11 bit studios/Chillingo
iTunes Store Rating: 12+ (frequent/intense cartoon or fantasy, infrequent/mild alcohol, tobacco, or drug use or references, infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes)
Price: $4 for iPad, $2-$10 for other versions

Tower defense games are a perfect fit for the iPad, which is why there are way too many of them coming out at once for the genre’s good. But if you’re hungry for a change of pace instead of a break, “Anomaly Warzone Earth” flips the script by giving you the keys to the offense — a convoy of tanks, mechs and other vehicles — and tasking you with blasting your way through an alien defense. The general rules of tower defense apply, but rather than lay out towers and turrets, you’re assembling a convoy lineup and drawing a path for it to follow through and around the streets of Baghdad’s urban battlegrounds. Vehicle upgrades and repairs replace tower upgrades, a handful of power-ups let you devise temporary defenses for your offense, and when all else fails, a terrific Tactical View interface lets you re-chart your course at any time. Nothing “Earth” does represents a seismic shift for tower defense, but the change of possession is a welcome twist for a genre that could use a few of them. The game’s strategic interfaces are intuitively polished, the in-game action is really visually impressive, and the maps grow considerably elaborate as the campaigns — one traditional and built around a storyline, the other driven more by scores, enemy waves, time limits and survival — progress.

Games 8/16/11: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, Labyrinth, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: UTV Ignition
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $60

During its opening moments, “El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” sees fit to send you down a path where you not only must fail, but will face what initially resembles a “Game Over” screen.

It isn’t. Rather, it’s your first definitive clue that “Metatron,” while a product of familiar influences, has designs to take those influences down some wonderfully unique new avenues.

Fundamentally, “Metatron” is an action game in the same ilk as “God of War” or “Bayonetta” — fixed camera angles, an agile mix of melee and ranged combat, and a control scheme that’s overwhelmingly dependent on hitting the same attack button ad nauseam.

The difference here is that mashing those buttons won’t get you as far as will tapping them rhythmically. There’s no beat to follow, but keeping one in your head will result in attacks far more powerful than the stock manuevers.

“Metatron” puts the combat (and the need to employ a similarly measured defense) to great effect by giving you fewer enemies to fight but making each one formidable. You also only carry one weapon at a time, which means that if you want to switch from melee to ranged combat, you have to disarm an enemy with the weapon you want and take it from him. It’s a dangerous approach, but it’s far more satisfying than simply swapping weapons like you can do in every other game.

“Metatron’s” excellent treatment of stock enemies comes at no expense to its bosses. To the contrary, its treatment of the seven fallen angels whose reign of terror you must end — “Metatron” is a very creatively liberated interpretation of the Book of Enoch — is magnificent.

In contrast to the normal pattern of boss introductions, “Metatron” introduces you to all seven angels before sending you down swinging against one of them. From there, the fallen angels make frequent appearances in battles you can’t completely win, fostering rivalries that culminate in boss fights that are significantly more satisfying to win after all that buildup. “Metatron” unfurls its story at a pace that’s recognizable but unpredictable, and you’ll face off against some angels multiple times over multiple chapters before getting your chance to put them away for good.

The confidence and fluidity with which “Metatron” plays with convention is apparent everywhere else — in the soundtrack, the narration (how does a guardian angel talking to God on a smartphone sound?), and the brilliant way the game sometimes abandons the third dimension and illustrates important story points as a fantastically fun sidescrolling platformer.

“Metatron’s” 3D platforming sequences are no slouch, either, thanks in equal part to fluid controls and some ingeniously weird level designs that twist, elevate and sometimes form under your feet. Another gameplay shift — occurring exactly once in the middle of the story — is so starkly different and stupidly fun that even hinting at what it is would just be wrong.

But nowhere is “Metatron” more confident than with regard to its visual presentation, which emerges as the showpiece of a game that’s full of them. Each level flaunts a dramatically different style — white skies and dynamic violet landscapes here, a living sheet of canvas there, the most electric worlds Kevin Flynn never created in between.

The visual variety makes an unpredictable game that much more surprising, but it’s the insane skill with which “Metatron” brings them to life that makes it impossible for even screenshots to do the whole thing justice. Whether altering character states, swapping dimensions or continuously redrawing entire horizons as you race through them, “Metatron’s” animation drops jaws with a relentless brilliance that has very few peers.

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Labyrinth
For: Nintendo DS
From: Mentor Interactive/dtp young entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)
Price: $20

Mentor Interactive has talked a good game with its thinkSMART video game imprint, which purportedly bestows its blessing on games only when they achieve a satisfactory standard with regard to educational as well as entertainment value.

“Labyrinth” is among the latest crop of games (the others being “Scotland Yard,” also for the Nintendo DS, and “Crazy Machines” for the Wii) to bear the tag. And while it isn’t much at all to look at or listen to, it definitely passes muster as a puzzle game that doesn’t take its audience’s intelligence lightly.

Even describing “Labyrinth” without making it sound impossibly complicated is a bit tricky. Essentially, you and up to three others are pawns in a disconnected, maze-like labyrinth that’s littered with treasure. Each player is after a specific piece of treasure, and with each turn, you can add a maze piece to any edge of the labyrinth that “pushes” the opposite edge away and transforms the corridor arrangement of the entire labyrinth. The object is to clear a pathway to your treasure while preventing others from doing the same first. Each player has a handful of treasures to collect in order, and the first to nab them all wins the match.

(If that sounds like a complete mess, rest assured that it makes sense after you see it in action. The video game also is based on the board game of the same name, so if you’re familiar with the board game, you can just ignore the preceding attempted explanation.)

Were “Labyrinth” a solitary endeavor, it’d still be challenging. Having to create a path two feet in front of you while also modifying the labyrinth in a way that won’t stifle you three turns later isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s just impossible. There’s a balance between thinking three steps ahead and making a compromise for the immediate greater good, and you’ll occasionally curse yourself when you make a move that simply reveals a much better move after the labyrinth shifts.

But the challenge takes on another tenor entirely with an adversary sharing the maze with you. (“Labyrinth” supports up to four players via local single-card wireless play or by passing a single DS around, and it supplies up to three A.I. opponents when human competition isn’t available.)

As you might expect, the internal battle between planning and reacting grows that much more complicated when opponents interrupt your process with their own turns. Occasionally, you need to just abandon your own hunt and spend a turn shifting the board to block opponents or box them in. You don’t know which treasure they’re specifically hunting for, nor do they know what you’re after, so it helps also to pay attention to their moves, discern what they’re after, and keep them off the path. If you can do that while simultaneously paving your own way, more power to you.

The immense amount of moving intellectual parts gives “Labyrinth” a formidable level of depth that defies the budget price and appearance. The game’s music is hard on the ears, the graphics are extremely rudimentary, and the quest mode’s storyline isn’t exactly a hotbed of compelling characters or high production values.

But all of that stuff — even the quest mode as a whole — feels like secondary dressing.

In a pleasantly surprising role reversal, it’s actually the Quick Play mode that gives “Labyrinth” its longest legs. Each new game introduces a randomly-generated maze — essentially running the level count into the gazillions — and you can customize the intelligence and number of opponents to tailor to your ability and/or appetite for punishment. Outside of opponent intelligence, which lies at the mercy of your friends, all that holds true for multiplayer as well.

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Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: FuelCell/Gagne International
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $15

Exploring the atmosphere of “Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet” is akin to wandering around a country without knowing the language, and that’s where its genius lies. “Planet” marries traditional 2D space shooting gameplay with the kind of non-linear exploration found in the likes of “Metroid,” populating regions you visit early on with areas you can only access once you return later with a gadget that can pave the way. “Planet” isn’t as sharp as “Metroid” about keeping the backtracking to a minimum, and purely as a space shooter, it’s more good than great. But the game redeems itself not only with the variety of gadgets you eventually collect, but in the clever way it challenges you to figure out the right tool for every job. “Planet” almost completely eschews language in favor of symbols: Your object scanner uses icons to hint at which gadgets are useful where, but you’ll need to flex some ingenuity to decipher what these gadgets do and how they apply to any given situation. Even in the first area, the game spells nothing out for you. The minimalist approach works in tandem with a vector-esque visual presentation to give “Planet” a fresh identity, and it joins forces with some great puzzle design to do the exploration theme proud. Should you occasionally crave something a little more frantic, the Lantern Run mode — a score-based, co-operative (four players, local or online) survival mode which puts your ship on the run from considerably more dangerous enemies — will prove a nice and punishing change of pace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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