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 7/12/11: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Dead Block

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Other versions available for: Wii, Windows PC, Nintendo DS
From: EA Bright Light/EA/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence)
Price: $50

Do you love Harry Potter — like really, really love him? Because you’ll have to if you want to enjoy the opening levels of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” which rocket from banal to passable if your undying love of the film compels you to experience it through the eyes of one seriously basic third-person cover shooter with some alarmingly flimsy weaponry.

Like the first “Deathly Hallows” game, the new “Hallows” takes on the characteristics of a third-person shooter — a reflection on the book and movie’s action-heavy focus, but a stark departure nonetheless from previous “Potter” games, which were non-linear and focused more on spells and discovery than blasting hundreds — no, seriously, literally hundreds — of Death Eaters into oblivion.

That, almost exclusively, is what you do in “Hallows'” brief campaign, which drops the preceding game’s sloppy stealth portions in favor of wall-to-wall carnage. The game softens its language to imply you’re not actually killing any of these wizards, but it’s hard not to be amused with (or, perhaps, turned off by) how wildly exaggerated the book’s violence is in this incarnation.

Though the stealth portions certainly aren’t missed, the straight line the new “Hallows” walks makes it harder to ignore how elementary it is as a shooter. A few diversions break up the action, and the game is good about dropping you into the shoes of a surprising array of characters. But regardless of whom you’re controlling, the overwhelming majority of the action — enter area, find cover, defeat scores of Death Eaters, repeat, repeat, repeat — is as basic as this genre gets.

Initially, it’s depressingly so. “Hallows” begins by putting you in Harry’s shoes with a single spell — Stupefy — that’s essentially the wizarding world’s equivalent to a basic pistol. Unfortunately, it’s so flimsy that comparing it to a pea shooter is an insult to pea shooters. Using it is boring, and considering the second and third spells you receive are designed solely to cast and destroy Protego shields, little about the combat is exciting early on.

But “Hallows” rallies from there by subsequently outfitting players with magic wand answers for a machine gun, grenade launcher, sniper rifle and even a heat-seeking rocket launcher. It’s hard not to smirk at how absurdly crazy the bloodbath gets when these spells are in play, but they’re so much more fun than the flimsy Stupefy spell that the complete abandonment of authenticity is completely welcome.

With that said, even high-powered wizard weaponry can’t elevate “Hallows” to anything beyond basic. It’s never bad beyond the early going, and that, along with the character diversity and chance to reenact the Battle for Hogwarts beyond anything the book conceived, is enough to make this recommendable to “Potter” fans. For everyone else, though, it’s a much harder sell. Third-person shooters are everywhere right now, and there is no shortage of better options if you’re more a fan of the genre than “Potter.”

“Hallows'” value proposition doesn’t help matters. You can put a bow on the campaign in a single dedicated afternoon of play, and the unlockable challenge missions — which are just story levels with par times and online leaderboards — aren’t a very enticing postgame reward. There’s no multiplayer content of any kind, and while the Kinect support in the Xbox 360 version of the first “Hallows” game wasn’t very good, this game shelves the novelty entirely rather than improve on it. (The PS3 version, to its credit, does add optional Playstation Move support.)

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Dead Block
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade) and Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Candygun Games/Digital Reality
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence, blood, crude humor)
Price: $10

If you’ve grown tired of the tower defense status quo, “Dead Block” might interest you. Because while this, too, is a tower defense game at heart, it’s also a third-person action game in which you directly control multiple survivors (either solo or via four-player splitscreen co-op) under attack from zombies. “Block’s” mechanics are simple: You have to destroy furniture to gather wood for boarding up windows, scour through other objects to find keys and parts with which to make traps, and manually attack zombies who break through your defenses. For whatever reason, music kills zombies dead, so the ultimate goal of each level is to assemble a guitar rig, play a very short rhythm game to rock out and wipe out all remaining undead. “Block’s” merging of third-person action and tower defense goes smoothly, and its overall style — cartoony characters straight out of a “Team Fortress 2” tribute game, 1950s iconography, levels presented as episodes of a campy television show — is terrific. But the downside of merging those two genres is that they compromise rather than thrive. The combat is clunky, your strategic options are little more limited than in a typical tower defense game (only so many windows and traps to configure), and while new characters, environments, items and traps show up on a regular basis, “Block’s” later levels aren’t drastically deeper than its early ones. But that’s why it costs $10 instead of $50. “Block” provides a good return on investment for that price, and what those later levels lack in surprises, they redeem in terms of challenge.


Games 6/28/11: Child of Eden, Shadows of the Damned, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Greg Hastings Paintball 2

Child of Eden
For: Xbox 360
From: Q Entertainment/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $50

Lest there be any confusion, you can play “Child of Eden” slumped in a chair with a controller. Should you choose to do so, what you get — a visually and functionally worthy spiritual successor to “Rez” that’s nearly miraculous simply for existing, given how acute “Rez’s” devoted following was — is pretty great.

But ever since Microsoft started branding Kinect-optional games’ boxes with the “Better With Kinect” tag, it’s never been nearly so true as it is in this instance.

For those familiar with “Rez,” consider this its direct sequel: It comes from the same minds who brought you “Rez” and, more to the point, plays a whole lot like it.

For those unfamiliar, “Eden” is a rhythm-based rail shooter that continually hurtles you forward through fantastical themed worlds that play out like living music videos. The gameplay is pretty elementary: Enemies fly at you, and you need to neutralize them with a weapon that locks onto up to eight enemies at once before firing. Unlike “Rez,” which gave you an on-screen avatar, you’re represented in the first-person “Eden” by a circular reticule that you move either with the left stick (controller) or your right hand (Kinect).

Should the enemies get off a shot, a new weapon that continually auto-fires is on hand — in the case of Kinect, literally on your left hand — to shoot down projectiles. (The controller method uses a single reticule and maps the weapons to different buttons, while the Kinect method asks that you keep one hand visible at a time to determine which weapon you wish to use.)

As with “Rez,” what elevates “Eden” from simple to special is the degree to which your actions both feed off of and feed into the look and sound of the game. Players who simultaneously take out eight targets in perfect time with the music receive a bonus score multiplier, but your actions continually alter the rhythm and beat density regardless of how good you are at keeping a beat.

Naturally, with 10 years of technological advancements at its back, “Eden” can do things “Rez” couldn’t in 2001 or even in its 2008 high-definition remaster. The five worlds are more diverse than “Rez’s” five levels were, and the sheer level of visual effects — along with “Eden’s” ability to seamlessly alter perspective and assets when transitioning from one sequence to the next — makes this a most unconventional showpiece title.

For Kinect owners, that’s doubly true, because from the opening menu onward, “Eden” absolutely shames pretty much every Kinect game to date in terms of fidelity and motion recognition. The game is still easier to play with a controller — no margin for error is still better than a small margin — but conducting the action with your hands instead of simply controlling it with sticks makes for a wholly different experience.

(To “Eden’s” credit, it encourages you to play both ways by using separate score leaderboards for Kinect and controller methods.)

As with “Rez,” “Eden” isn’t exactly bursting with content, and if your aim is to see each world once and only once, you’ll be finished in two hours’ time.

But if you look at “Eden” and only see two hours of gameplay, this probably wasn’t made with you in mind. Experiencing each world is great fun, but “Eden’s” true obsession — as with “Rez,” which you’d best believe still gets heavy play to this day — is the classically arcade pursuit of a higher score. “Eden” includes a suite of mostly meaningless unlockables to attain through repeated playthroughs, but it’s the online leaderboards that, for the right crowd, will turn two hours into 200.

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Shadows of the Damned
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Grasshopper Manufacture/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)
Price: $60

When a game lets style run completely wild over substance the way “Shadows of the Damned” does, it’s usually because there really isn’t a whole lot of substance in place to stop it from doing so.

But while “Damned” doubtlessly will be best remembered for its characters, setting, humor and overall audiovisual presentation, each of these headliners serves to complement rather than mask the actual gameplay, which is — while mostly conventional, save for a few hit-or-miss bits — quite good in its own right.

On a textbook level, nearly everything about “Damned” is standard-issue. It’s primarily a run-and-gun third-person shooter. Your weapons, broken down, are the same old pistol/shotgun/machine gun/blunt weapon foursome that’s ruled shooters for two decades. Common enemies attack in waves, boss enemies inevitably have a red weak spot, and advancing through levels often means finding a key here to open a gate there. Even the story — demon hunter Garcia Hotspur must trespass in Hell to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend — is simply a darker version of rescuing the princess from the dragon.

But for every old convention “Damned” calls in, it has a special ingredient to freshen it up and own it.

The weapons foursome, for instance, is actually a single, transforming weapon that doubles as Johnson, a wonderfully cheerful talking skeleton head who becomes Garcia’s best pal as they traverse through Hell. Though “Damned” isn’t afraid to delve into juvenile humor — particularly during a bizarre (and unspoiled) chapter that briefly but significantly alters the gameplay — the chats Johnson and Garcia share while traversing the underworld might provide the first laugh-out-loud moments you’ve ever had while playing a game set in Hell.

“Damned’s” version of Hell is, in itself, pretty remarkable: In contrast to the usual red rocks and lava, this underworld is awash in cobblestone roads, moonlit lakes, quaint cottages and even seedy neon districts. There’s even a friendly half-demon merchant named Christopher who speaks with a delightful Southern accent. “Damned” bathes its setting in unconventional lighting that gives everything a wholly unique color palette, achieving a balance between vibrant and grimy that’s refreshingly unique for any game, much less one awash in demons.

Fortunately, these and numerous other touches serve to dress up rather than prop up “Damned’s” gameplay. Mechanically, it’s extremely sound: The shooting feels good, the melee attack even better once you master the timing. The game’s attempts at puzzles achieve mixed results — a challenge that has you rotating large chunks of the environment is terrific, while a bridge-building challenge is just tedious — but generally, it strikes a nice balance between fighting and searching for keys (which aren’t exactly keys, as you’ll see).

Predictably, Garcia’s demon enemies aren’t terribly bright. But “Damned” compensates by sprinkling in some relentless enemies with unique vulnerabilities and attack patterns. Fighting these demons while simultaneously handling four or five garden-variety demons makes for a frantically fun time.

“Damned” throws in an additional wrinkle by regularly making darkness itself an enemy. Enemies “infected” by darkness are invincible until Garcia uses light to whisk it away, while environments cloaked in it will drain Garcia’s health. Fortunately, while you occasionally will have to manage light sources to keep them flickering, the practice isn’t as tedious as it sounds — nor is the mechanic just an empty gimmick, thanks to the clever (and, again, unspoiled) ways “Damned” sometimes requires Garcia to use that darkness to his advantage.

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Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Other versions available for: Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)
Price: $60

No form of entertainment ages as unfairly fast as modern video games do, but really, how long’s a year? And if the “Transformers” game that came out in 2010 is roundly better than the one that’s out right now, why hold age against it?

As you might guess, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” ties into the movie of the same name and was the beneficiary of a development schedule that was at the mercy of the film’s release. If you’re somehow invested in the timeline of these “Transformers” movies, “Moon” provides a little color by playing out events that lead up to the third film and piecing it into seven missions starring eight Transformers.

Problem is, these events — which have you switching off between Autobots and Decepticons — don’t come together to significantly enhance the movie timeline. Instead, “Moon” feels like a patchwork non-story that serves merely to entice people to check out the movie and see something that actually (presumably) goes somewhere.

That’s a problem last year’s “Transformers: War for Cybertron” — which didn’t tie into any movie and was free to debut when it was ready — didn’t have. And it shows.

Lest we get carried away, “Cybertron” wasn’t exactly immaculate, either. But its focus on the cartoon interpretation of “Transformers” gave it a considerable stylistic advantage over the movie’s artless designs. Additionally, while the story wasn’t edge-of-your-seat amazing, it worked in the service of the game you paid for instead of a movie you haven’t seen, so it felt more complete.

Perhaps most important, “Cybertron” knew how to manage its gameplay strengths and weaknesses. Environments were tight without being cramped, and they made smart use of some good shooting, driving, flying and transforming controls. It broke no bounds as a third-person shooter with “Transformers” touches, but it was good enough.

“Moon,” by contrast, falls back into patterns that made the preceding movie games so unfortunate. The oversized environments are back, and per usual, there’s little to do between killing enemies, traveling down empty stretches in vehicle form, hitting a switch and repeating. “Moon” fills these large levels with areas that, ironically, make the game feel excessively cramped as enemies with no attack intelligence swarm from everywhere. The transition parts would mark a nice change of pace if there was something to do during them or if clumsy controls didn’t cause vehicles to fishtail enough to make “Ridge Racer” look like “Forza” by comparison, but there isn’t and they do.

Though the ability to play as different Transformers in each mission is nice, “Moon” rarely feels dramatically different from one level to the next, and its deviations — a sloppy stealth assignment, a pointlessly easy escort bit — neither change things much nor last very long.

The one area where “Moon” outdoes “Cybertron” is with the ability to transform into a third, stealth form that’s a cross between each Transformer’s robot and vehicular form. It’s slower than the vehicle, but it travels in all directions without turning and, consequently, handles considerably better. “Moon” doesn’t offer many opportunities to let the form shine where the other two wouldn’t suffice, but any variety is welcome when so little is on offer.

But “Moon” falls right back behind again when it comes to online multiplayer (10 players), which cuts the match types down to only three basic variants and completely removes co-op play from the equation. The experience points system from “Cybertron” is back on board, but climbing the ladder is considerably less fun when the variety and quality of match types are both so basic.

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Greg Hastings Paintball 2
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Majesco
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (language, violence)
Price: $20

Yes, it seems silly to have a video game that essentially emulates the very same thing other games emulate with bullets and blood instead of paint pellets. But “Greg Hastings Paintball 2” earns its place not simply because it simulates simulated gunplay. It also pulls in the rules and metrics of the sport, which allows it to accommodate modes and features — team/gear management, licensed players, tournament schedules, in-game play formations, even cheering crowds — that are more the domain of sports games than first-person shooters. Additionally, it creates a tense combat scenario where one pellet can eliminate you and where, among other factors, a shot across the field has to account for a pellet’s tendency to arc in ways a bullet wouldn’t. Running and gunning rarely works in this environment, and while “Paintball’s” controls require an acclimation period, they capably accommodate leaning, rushing into cover and some light playcalling as well as shooting. “Paintball” makes an awful first impression with graphics and sound that look pre-Playstation 2 and a hideous menu system that arguably predates the first Playstation. It may be the least attractive game on the PS3. Provided you can make peace with this, though, and provided you can appreciate the angle this game is taking, what lies beneath is much better than what first impressions imply. Additionally, where appearances fail, “Paintball’s” feature set — full career mode, field editor, Playstation Move support, splitscreen (two players) and online (14) multiplayer, a video library — does not.


Games 6/21/11: Alice: Madness Returns, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Red Johnson's Chronicles

Alice: Madness Returns
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Spicy Horse/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, sexual themes, strong language, violence)
Price: $60

In the land of video game characters who have recently returned from extended leave, all the headlines belong to Duke Nukem.

But if you want to read the real success story, you’d best train your eyes on Alice, whose comeback validates not only her place in today’s gaming climate, but the legitimacy of a genre — family-friendly platforming wrapped inside a bloody, deranged, M-rated shell — that hasn’t had much representation in the 10-plus years since “American McGee’s Alice” came, left its mark and went.

At its core, “Alice: Madness Returns” plays by many of the same rules that governed its predecessor, splitting platforming and combat roughly down the middle and spreading it out across a lengthy (15 hours, give or take) journey through some large, diverse and creatively sovereign interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s imagination.

Also like its predecessor, “Returns” doesn’t exactly conceal its developer’s weaknesses. Its graphics are, purely technically speaking, dated in spots. Alice occasionally moves awkwardly and sometimes gets stuck on something for a brief moment. The combat is a bit unwieldy, the camera occasionally squirrelly.

Some players doubtlessly will take issue with “Returns'” length as well. Considering it takes roughly three hours to clear each area and how much of that time is spent doing different mixes of the same things, a request for more environments and less time in each certainly isn’t unreasonable.

But these gripes look awful small in the face of everything “Returns” does so much differently than just about every game in existence that isn’t its own predecessor.

The unwieldy combat, for instance, is forgivable in light of Alice’s one-of-a-kind arsenal. Her bloody blade returns as her default weapon of choice, but how does using a hobby horse for more thunderous attacks sound? How about a pepper grinder that fire grains of pepper like bullets, or the Clockwork Rabbit, an adorable time bomb that distracts some enemies while Alice multitasks against others? The controls aren’t perfect, but they’re good enough, and the imaginative weapon design paves the way for similarly imaginative attack styles.

The rest of “Returns” — which overwhelmingly keeps players in Wonderland but also provides glimpses into Alice’s dreary real-world life — benefits from similarly uncaged levels of imagination and confidence. Beyond simply being large enough to hide numerous optional secrets and accommodate more ambitious platforming segments than its predecessor could handle, the worlds Alice visits provide a magnificently colorful departure from the same old bleak real-world environments while still outclassing those bland locales on the macabre scale.

“Returns” gives each world its own visual voice despite keeping the gameplay fundamentally similar throughout, and the disparate designs give the game guidance while also keeping things stylistically unpredictable. Bridges made from playing cards form as you cross them. A ship captain who is a cross between a turtle, camel and cow offers a ride while flying shark skeletons give chase. Wasps made of ink weird samurai swords, trains with cars made of cathedrals soar like planes around you, living paintings briefly turn the game into a 2D sidescroller, and even the “normal” people in Alice’s real world look like living caricatures.

The continuous stream of detail and surprise works in concert with some excellent voice acting to tell a terrifically original tale of a girl gone mad living in a world gone madder. “Returns” repeats a lot of tricks across its existence, and to a point, it repeats tricks it first played 11 years ago. But when no one else is doing what this one does so strikingly well, the misgivings don’t stand a chance at mattering.

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The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Grezzo/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, fantasy violence, suggestive themes)
Price: $40

It’s easy to be cynical about yet another remake for a new system whose library consists almost exclusively of games you could already play on another system or in another era.

But there exists an extremely short list of games that not only circumvent the cynicism, but fully justify the conditions that make all these nostalgia trips possible. “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” doesn’t simply belong in that lineup: It bats leadoff.

If you’re reasonably familiar with the original “Ocarina,” you likely also can predict what developer Grezzo did to freshen it up. But predictable or not, the enhancements address the areas where “Ocarina” needed the most cleaning up, and in all but one optional instance, they toe a perfect line between necessary modernization and respect for what already was.

For starters, a game that looked solid in 1998 now looks terrific in 2011. The new “Ocarina” is the recipient of a ground-up graphical asset remake that fully conforms to the original game’s style but significantly improves both the quality within those assets and the fluidity with which they come to life. Drab, flat textures are reborn with considerable detail, and the original game’s choppy framerate — which made it increasingly difficult to play as 3D animation standards improved over the years — is smooth and rocksteady.

Though you still can fully enjoy the visual makeover without activating it, “Ocarina’s” utilization of the Nintendo 3DS’ glasses-free 3D tech is the best showcase yet of the system’s most glamorous selling point. It’s still a superfluous gimmick, of course, but seeing these classic dungeons, towns and overworlds transformed into dynamic virtual dioramas is a visually stunning validation of that gimmick’s existence.

Perhaps “Ocarina’s” most important benefit comes from having access to a touch screen. Buoyed by a menu layout that fixes what ailed the original game’s menus, the bottom screen provides quick access to items, maps, the ocarina and even Navi, which means you’ll spend far less time pausing the game and descending through menu screens instead of actually playing.

On the “something for everyone” front, the infamously obtuse Water Temple has received a slight dose of visual user-friendliness that, along with the streamlined menus, should please fans who shudder to think of returning to that stage. Wholly new players, meanwhile, can ease the learning curve via a series of hint movies that are tucked inside stones more experienced players can simply pass by and ignore.

“Ocarina’s” only major misfire comes from the incorporation of the 3DS’ gyroscope, which allows players to move the actual device to aim certain weapons and alter the perspective while in first-person view. It’s haphazard compared to simply using the joystick, and not simply because you’re breaking the 3D perspective any time you have to move the whole device and drastically alter your view of the screen. Fortunately, though enabled by default, this feature can be disabled.

The other arguable drawback comes with the inclusion of “Ocarina of Time: Master Quest,” which Nintendo originally released in America as part of a limited-edition Gamecube “Zelda” bonus disc. The quest itself, which remixes the original “Ocarina” dungeons and changes some of the puzzles, is a terrific bonus for players who mastered t
he original quest but may never have experienced this version before. Unfortunately, the only way to access it is to finish the original quest first, so if you’ve tired of that quest and were hoping to just straight into “Master Quest,” no can do.

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Red Johnson’s Chronicles
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Lexis Numerique
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, sexual themes, strong language, violence)
Price: $13

If “L.A. Noire” is the yang of detective adventure games, consider “Red Johnson’s Chronicles” the yin. Instead of recreating 1940s Los Angeles in meticulous, freely explorable detail, “Chronicles” designs its own bizarre (but mostly static) world that’s a mix of old-fashioned, futuristic and something out of a Eastern Bloc comic book. Instead of a straight-faced narrative with a deep back story, “Chronicles” gives us a stock detective story that benefits instead from the setting and a likable cast of semi-cartoony characters. Paramountly, though, “Chronicles” keeps it classic in terms of its gameplay elements. Most of the unique scenery you ingest will be seen during pixel hunts for clues, while the usual array of adventure game puzzles accompany found pieces of evidence. Interrogation, meanwhile, comes down to dialogue exchanges that test your memory comprehension instead of your ability to psychologically break suspects down. “Chronicles” isn’t entirely old-fashioned: Its visual presentation and interface are very polished, and its method for handling evidence — most puzzles are integrated directly into the evidence, which you manipulate freely as a 3D object until you find the riddle — is really clever. Just know what you’re getting into: “Chronicles” provides a healthy return on investment with a good 10 or so hours of content, and the challenges hit far more than they miss, but if the sudden saturation of adventure games has left you fatigued, the unique setting and clever touches won’t totally overcome the feeling of familiarity you’ll experience here.


Games 5/31/11: Dirt 3, Kung Fu Panda 2 (Kinect), Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale

Dirt 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Codemasters
ESRB Rating: Teen (lyrics)
Price: $60

It stands to reason, unless you’re unreasonable, that “Dirt 3” isn’t going to be the leap forward for off-road rally racing that its immaculate predecessor was only two years ago.

That doesn’t mean, however, that some pleasant surprises don’t lie in wait.

From the top, the best news about “D3” is that everything that was great about “Dirt 2” either remains great or has ever-so-subtly improved.

Visually, it’s still at the top of the racing game class, equally in terms of car detail, track detail and how good everything looks in motion. “D3” increases the variables with regard to weather and time of day, and while a dirt track race under the sun looks predictably terrific, a late-night race on snowy terrain is jaw-dropping (and a little unnerving when you realize how little light there is to guide you).

The sense of danger is a credit to a physics engine that is equal parts authentic and rivetingly unwieldy. “D3’s” default handling makes for a perfectly challenging game — punishing if you drive carelessly, but rarely cheap in terms of physics snafus — and the equal prioritization of speed and weight allows it to strike a balance between manageable and thrilling without letting either side win.

If you disagree, the game is better than its predecessors about letting you correct it. Along with providing three difficulty presets, “D3” also lets you tailor the experience as needed. So if, for instance, you don’t want the auto-braking assist enabled but would like the opponent difficultly toned down and could use some stability control assistance, you can set each slider as you please with no penalty to your advancement through the career mode.

(If even that fails, a limited-use Flashback function lets you literally rewind a race a few seconds and take a mulligan on a bad turn.)

In terms of career, “D3” largely builds on its predecessor, mixing traditional checkpoint rally events with races on various terrain and with different classes of cars, trucks and buggies. The game liberally rotates through tracks (set across eight new locations), conditions and event types and ties everything together under an experience points-style Reputation bar, which rewards your ability to win events skillfully (instead of, say, qualify after using the Flashback feature three times) with new vehicles.

The big new addition here — and also to “D3’s” multiplayer (eight players online, and in a welcome series first, two-player splitscreen) — is the Gymkhana, which takes all those terrific racing physics and applies them to open-ended stunt wonderlands that challenge your ability to jump ramps, drift through gates, spin out and string together trick combos for high scores.

The Gymkhana stands in excellent contrast to the tenor of “D3’s” other events — a sharp change of pace from the normal “Dirt” gameplay, but one that capitalizes perfectly on the gameplay fundamentals established by those other modes.

It also, at least on the multiplayer side, lets “D3” do things it could never do if it was just a straight-faced rally racer. You can now, among other things, play Capture the Flag with rally cars or engage in a mode where you must crash into alien cutouts without damaging surrounding building cutouts in the process. If you can imagine some of “Mario Kart’s” best party games, but instead with world-class vehicles obeying the laws of one of the genre’s best physics engines, you have an idea of how this works. And like everything else in “D3,” it performs as good as advertised.

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Kung Fu Panda 2
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
Alternate versions available for: Playstation 3, Wii, Nintendo DS
From: Griptonite Games/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)
Price: $50

Games based on kids movies have enjoyed a pleasantly unexpected surge in quality and attention over the last few years, and based on THQ’s diverse array of “Kung Fu Panda 2” offerings — four dramatically different games, tailored to their respective systems — it’s a trend that will continue.

In the case of the Xbox 360, “KFP2” is designed squarely for the Kinect. Without one, you can’t even navigate the rather clunky main menu, much less play the game, so don’t confuse this for a traditional game with optional Kinect-friendly trimmings mixed in.

As you might predict, Kinect’s primary role here is to help Po (the Kung Fu Panda, in case you didn’t know) perform all those cool moves he learned in the first movie. When you punch, kick, jump, block or dodge, Po does the same.

Sort of.

Unlike, say, the boxing game found in “Kinect Sports,” “KFP2” doesn’t really allow for freestyle, 1:1 fighting.

Rather, it’s more like “Punch-Out!” lite with motion controls. The game will prompt you when you’re free to attack or it’s time to defend, and while you’re sometimes free to mix your punches and kicks as you please, you’re mostly tasked with reacting to your enemy. If he’s on the attack, the game will give you cues to defend or dodge a certain way, and if you attack and he dodges, there are only a couple of countering moves that will actually do any damage. Sometimes, the game even forces you to call in the Furious Five and watch them finish off an enemy for you.

At first, when the fights are mindlessly easy, the limitations are a serious letdown for anyone who knows the Kinect is capable of overcoming such restrictions.

But once the fights become more interesting — multiple enemies, faster and more elaborate defensive stances for keeping Po on his feet — “KFP2” finds a nice groove. At no point does it evolve into a furious challenge, but if the goal is to get players to sweat a little bit, it absolutely succeeds in spite of those self-enforced limitations.

The same generally holds true when “KFP2” takes a break from fighting and tries something else. Chases set atop high-speed rickshaws have you dodging, jumping over and ducking under obstacles while enemies pelt you with debris. A target practice game is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, while a noodle shop game tasks you with feeding customers quickly by managing their order and making sure you throw the right orders to the right tables (and dodge orders that are rudely sent back).

Though they fit awkwardly into a storyline that is patchwork at best, the general takeaway from those games is the same as it is from “KFP2’s” main portion. The games are simpler than they could have been, but they work, and while they never become viciously challenging, they all keep you in pretty constant motion.

That, in fact, is the grand takeaway as a whole. On every level — from control fidelity to constricted freedom of motion to the lack of any kind of multiplayer support — “KFP2” very obviously could have been better. But what we get is fun and functional, and if the goal with Kinect is to mix in some burnt calories with your fun and not make it a total hassle to do so, this fulfills that mission better than most early-stage Kinect games have to this point.

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Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade), Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network), Windows PC
From: Bedlam Games/Atari
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, violence)
Price: $15

“Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale” won’t win any honorable mentions, much less awards, for breaking ground. If you’ve played a dungeon crawler, the vast bulk of what you’ll experience here — the quest structure, the threadbare story, the endless array of grunt enemies and barrels that await your weapon — will look familiar to a distressing degree. “Daggerdale” competently covers the basics, with multiple character classes, collectable loot, a useful array of spells and a character-leveling system that upgrades the usual attributes all present and accounted for. It also, unlike the vastly overrated “Torchlight,” can challenge players by swarming them with enemies who are actually somewhat formidable. On the ingenuity scale, though, “Daggerdale” stands totally pat, happy to embrace the same uninspired environments, gameplay standards and quest design flaws (prepare for a lot of backtracking) that have made dungeon crawlers the most complacent genre in existence. The inclusion of online co-op (four players) is nice when it works, but the aggravations — interface discrepancies and glitches, a lobby that makes it guesswork to team up with similar-level players, tolerable instances of lag and the bizarre tendency to whisk you to a load screen while the action continues for your partners and you get pummeled with no recourse — dampen the occasion. If you absolutely need some dungeon crawling and can forgive the complete lack of inspiration, the offline co-op (two players) is, at least for now, the best way to play.


Games 5/17/11: MX vs. ATV Alive, Brink, Gatling Gears

MX vs. ATV Alive
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)
Price: $40

Just in case the current economy of video games wasn’t in enough confusing flux for you, along comes the newest and strangest chapter in the long-running “MX vs. ATV” series to confuse it just a little bit more.

(You didn’t think the lower retail price — $40, down from the usual $60 — was because THQ loves you, did you?)

It isn’t. Rather, it’s the basis of a new pricing plan that, if successful, may become a new normal.

For that lower price, “Alive” arrives with the best iteration yet of its unique brand of off-road racing. It also comes standard with a smattering of tracks and single- and multiplayer (two players splitscreen, 12 online) modes. Initially, most of the tracks and events are locked, though every mode has a few that are available to play straight away.

Instead of the usual career mode, “Alive” outfits you with a single experience points bar that accrues experience across every mode of play. Upgrade to a new experience level, and new parts avail themselves to your rider and his motorbikes and ATVs. Achieve certain level milestones — level 10, for instance — and you get faster vehicles to ride, new tracks on which to ride them, and new events (online and offline) that are available only to players of certain level classes.

Beyond that? Open up your wallet. “Alive” prominently features an online store in its main menu, and THQ plans to gradually stock it with new events, vehicles and tracks you can purchase piecemeal, eventually turning your $40 investment into whatever price you’re willing to pay.

Cynicism about the “have it your way” messaging aside, “Alive’s” handling of this idea could be worse. If you never drop a dime into the store, there’s still a respectable amount of content to unlock simply by playing the game and leveling up. (New copies of the game also include a voucher for a free download that includes what are, until you reach level 10, the best tracks and events in the core game.)

But for being a game that’s all about the art of the continuous reward, “Alive” errs by unlocking that core content at an aggravatingly slow pace. Until you reach that 10th level, for instance, you’re stuck riding the same four long tracks, two short tracks and three free ride environments (voucher content included) ad nauseam. A trickle of new events becomes available then, at which point you repeat the process with a little more variety until you hit level 25.

The idea, of course, is for you to alleviate the tedium by buying new stuff online. (Predictably, you can even pay to unlock all core content straight away.) But when all the math is done, that isn’t a terribly great trade-off when you consider this so-called flexibility comes at the expense of the more full-featured career modes from previous games.

But if you have to ride these tracks over and over, at least it’s fun to do so. “Alive” continues the heavy infusion of physics that really came into focus in the last game, asking players to control their rider’s body and position while simultaneously controlling the vehicle. The dueling weight factors (along with the effects of heavy track deformation) add a subtle but unmistakable layer of strategy to the art of cornering and fighting for position — in the air, post-ramp, as well as on the dirt. But none of these factors work at the expense of the speed, danger and general freneticism that’s made the games so accessible all these years.

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Brink
Reviewed for: Xbox 360
Also available for: Playstation 3 and Windows PC
From: Splash Damage/Bethesda
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $60

In a perfect world, “Brink” would be a compelling first-person shooter. One day, if a patient community has formed around it after some patches arrive, it may still be.

Right now, though, it’s a fiasco — a mess of too many mishandled good ideas relentlessly undercutting one another.

On paper, it sounds like the zenith of dynamic, squad-based combat. “Brink’s” crumbling post-apocalyptic utopia has two warring factions — those interested in preserving the floating city known as The Ark, and those bent on leaving it for a new life — and the game offers a separate playable campaign for each faction.

Beneath that lies a healthy collection of classes (soldier, engineer, medic, operative), weapons, body types (big guys tolerate more damage, while smaller guys are faster and able to wall-run to ledges the big guys can’t reach) and perks that unlock as players accumulate experience points. The perks range from an enormous suite of weapon attachments to stackable special abilities, and if you know what kind of attack strategy you want to adopt, you almost certainly can find a combination that supports it.

In action, though, it’s a race to see which tantalizing piece of “Brink’s” puzzle can disappoint you first.

Take, for instance, the campaigns. “Brink” sells itself as a game that can be seamlessly enjoyed as a single- or 16-player online experience, but in reality the campaigns are glorified multiplayer matches that support A.I. bots if human competition isn’t available.

Unfortunately, it’s a lose-lose situation. “Brink’s” net code is prone to lag that’s impossible to ignore even with just a few human players, and it’s a mess when eight players fill each side. But playing alone is even worse, thanks to some unbelievably stupid ally and enemy artificial intelligence. The value of teamwork is no trivial matter here: If your teammates cannot complete an objective themselves, they most certainly need to protect you while you do so. But your teammates repeatedly fall asleep at the wheel, and because enemies storm objective points or spawn endlessly right near them, you’re climbing an impossibly steep hill without their assistance.

And for what? “Brink’s” story barely says. Outside of a few audio logs and some laughably half-hearted cutscenes at the top of each stage — which you can play out of order for all the game cares — the game’s fiction barely colors in the details of this conflict. Instead, you get roughly six hours’ worth of missions whose objectives rarely make much sense.

Even if you can somehow assemble 15 friends to play the game the right way (a heady proposition for any online multiplayer game in which breaking rank has little consequence), and even if you manage to avoid all that lag, “Brink’s” fundamentals are too shoddy to keep it satisfying. The guns feel week and unwieldy, even when staring down the sights. The grenades explode with all the fury of a balloon flying too close to a ceiling fan. The environments have a unique look, but the objectives — in addition to too often being incredibly boring instances of “stand here and guard X for X minutes” — almost always take place in congested corridors that degenerate into artless shootouts at point-blank range. “Brink” makes a big deal about characters’ ability to free run, but it doesn’t integrate these abilities into the objectives nearly enough.

Splash Damage has already gone on the offensive with promises to fix its game, and maybe it’ll deliver. But it hasn’t yet, and until that changes, your money should stay where it is.

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Gatling Gears
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network), Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade), Windows PC
From: Vanguard Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)
Price: $15

The age-old game design truth remains true: If something you do isn’t original, you’ll be forgiven as long as you do it well. “Gatling Gears” is the umpteenth twin-stick shooter (left joystick to move, right stick to aim and shoot) to appear in the last few years, and while the tutorial teases a technically (and visually) polished game with large levels and lots of firepower — gatling guns, rockets and grenades are all available immediately and in nearly infinite capacity — it also inspires no confidence that it does the same old formula better than the numerous games that preceded it. Fortunately, after a few decent but slow levels, things change considerably for the better. “Gears” doesn’t rewrite the script, but it fills it with some terrifically frantic action that’s imposing without being cheaply difficult. An upgrade path allows you to significantly improve the oomph of all three weapons, and “Gears” counters by crowding its pretty outdoor environments with increasingly tougher enemy soldiers, vehicles and robotic contraptions — topped on each level by some terrific multi-stage encounters with bosses that sometimes command half the screen. “Gears'” campaign is lengthy and polished enough to command the $15 tag, and it complements it with an arcade-style Survival Mode and two-player offline/online co-op support across all modes. The proliferation of twin-stick shooters has dampened the excitement whenever yet another one arrives, but if you like the genre, this is one of the good ones.


Games 5/10/11: Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, DanceDanceRevolution, Outland

Lego Pirates of the Caribbean
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo DS, PSP and Windows PC
From: TT Games/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)
Price: $30-$50

If you’re at all familiar by now with the Lego games, you know precisely how “Lego Pirates of the Caribbean” goes.

Whether that’s a good thing or not is, of course, up to you.

Even by the standards of recent Lego games, “Pirates” feels married to a formula that charmed everyone in 2005’s “Lego Star Wars” but has evolved at a glacial pace ever since. The game divides itself into four mini-campaigns based on the four “Pirates” movies — including the upcoming “On Stranger Tides” — and the extreme majority of these levels finds players controlling Lego-fied versions of the films’ most popular characters as they reenact the most memorable scenes from each movie.

This has been the case with every console “Lego” game. But the Lego-fied heroes and villains of “Lego Batman” at least had cool gadgets to play with, while “Star Wars” and “Lego Harry Potter” had a wide complement of vehicles and spells, respectively, to diversify the action a little bit.

“Pirates” trots out a few new tricks. You can occasionally fire a cannon in first-person mode, solve puzzles using Jack Sparrow’s versatile compass, and sometimes control a whole party of characters instead of the usual twosome. “Pirates” also is the prettiest Lego game yet, with levels that take place both above and below sea level and in front of the kind of picturesque vistas rarely seen in these worlds.

But the vast majority of “Pirates” is the same gameplay — light platforming, light combat and cause-and-effect puzzles that are a weird mix of illogical and overly easy — that has defined these games for six years now. Things that could’ve used improvement in 2005 — the awkward fixed camera, imprecise jumping controls, combat undermined by loose collision detection, the lack of online co-op support — remain in need of improvement, and the aforementioned additions are neither significant nor pervasive enough to mix things up the way “Batman’s” and “Potter’s” diversions did. If you came here hoping for anything beyond more of the same, you’re even more out of luck than usual.

At least the cutscenes remain funny. In fact, if you like the idea of the “Pirates” movies more the drawn-out, rambling movies themselves, this might be the gateway you’ve been waiting for.

The Lego games, for all the routines they follow, are consistently brilliant in the art of converting its source material into funny cutscenes powered completely by body language, pantomiming and genuinely amusing slapstick. “Pirates” has less iconic material to work with than previous Lego games did, and because the “Pirates” movies are already campier than the likes of “Potter” and “Star Wars,” there’s less of an opportunity to take a completely serious scene and find a way to mine it for laughs. But the more restrictive parameters don’t keep TT Games from working its storytelling magic, and the result — funny, easy to follow and rarely bogged down in directionless blather the way the movies are — is entirely palatable whether you love the movies or have never even seen them.

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DanceDanceRevolution
For: Xbox 360
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild lyrics, suggestive themes)
Price: $40 for game and mat bundle

The subtitle-free name may scream “reboot” — as if Konami recognizes it released a few too many “DanceDanceRevolution” games (including three others on the Xbox 360 alone) over the years and wants to start over.

But in the post-Kinect age, “relic” feels like a more appropriate term. Fresh start or no fresh start, entirely too little has changed to make “DDR” feel like anything but a slightly different version of the slightly different games that preceded it — and too much has changed elsewhere to make that acceptable anymore.

This isn’t to suggest what worked before cannot work now. The “DDR” formula — step on the bundled dance mat’s giant buttons in accordance with the visual prompts and beats of the music — is recognizable to the point of iconic now, and it remains as simple as ever to play and difficult as ever to master. If there’s an advantage to releasing slight variations of the same game so many times over the years, it’s that Konami has the difficulty curve locked down. Between the multiple difficulty settings and room for tweaking in the options screens, “DDR” has the range to accommodate just about everybody.

All those passing years have also allowed Konami to pack a lot of modes and features into these games. “DDR” isn’t as ambitious as the “DDR Universe” series, which sent a horde of features orbiting around elaborate single-player quest modes, but the usual arcade modes are accounted for. The new Club Mode slightly mimics the “Universe” quests by stringing songs together and asking players to complete challenges beyond just hitting the right buttons. A four-player Dance Off mode lets players take turns racking up the best score on a song, though it — along with all of “DDR’s” modes — lacks online multiplayer support.

Of course, when “DDR” trumpets an offline-only multiplayer mode as one of its big new features, it says volumes about the series’ age and inability to grow with the times. It’s a bit shortsighted to omit online multiplayer from any Xbox 360 game that has the means to support it, and it looks downright lazy when that game marks the series’ fourth iteration on the system.

But Konami’s bigger problem by far is its complete ignorance of Kinect. “DDR” arrives nearly six months after “Dance Central” made waves as the Kinect’s best launch title, and that game’s range of motion — utilizing a player’s upper as well as lower body and doing so without any need for a dance mat — makes this game’s range look positively ancient.

It doesn’t help that the mat remains a wired accessory. The wire is pretty long, but if you’ve arranged your setup to accommodate either the Kinect or a wireless setup in general, there’s still a chance you can’t even plug this thing in and place it at a comfortable distance from your setup.

Konami has, to its credit, priced “DDR” to move. Even with the mat bundled inside, the $40 price is cheaper than the “Universe” games cost all by themselves.

But the low price reads like an admission that “DDR” isn’t the revamp its name implies it should have been. The room for growth is more spacious now than its ever been, and if there’s a fifth “DDR” game for this system, it’d be wise to evolve if it wants to be looked at as more than a budget game for old fans.

For those curious, a complete list of songs included in “DDR” is available at konami.com/ddr. Additionally, if you’ve purchased downloadable tracks over Xbox Live for the “Universe” games, they will work in this game as well.

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Outland
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade) and Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Housemarque/Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $10

Like many contemporary 2D platformers, “Outland” takes a page from “Metroid’s” playbook, sprawling its adventure across a large, open-ended landscape dotted with collectable abilities that gradually increase your ability to access the world’s most far-reaching corners. But “Outland” sets itse
lf apart by taking a page from a whole other genre — overhead space shooters, and “Ikaruga” in particular — and integrating it in a way that never once feels forced or awkward. As the story explains, “Outland” pretty quickly gives you the ability to change your energy from light (blue) to dark (red). Red projectiles can hurt you only when you’re blue (and vice versa), and while you can hurt enemies of the same color, you’ll do more damage when you switch energies. The formula allows “Outland” to assume the traits of a bullet hell space shooter, flooding levels with red and blue projectiles and asking you to run, jump and slide through mazes of bullets while quickly swapping between energies to stay alive. It’s an extremely clever concept, and because the game’s controls and animation are as perfectly fluid as they are, it works unbelievably well in practice. “Outland’s” visual style — half silhouette, half moving painting — is terrifically unique, and between the retail-sized campaign and support for two-player online co-op, it earns its $10 asking price without breaking a sweat.