Games 5/3/11: MotorStorm: Apocalypse, Lego Battles: Ninjago, The Fancy Pants Adventures

MotorStorm: Apocalypse
For: Playstation 3
From: Evolution Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (crude humor, drug reference, language, suggestive themes, violence)

It seems a bit odd to commend an arcade racing game set amongst a crumbling city for its subtlety. But when the obscene amount of destruction taking place sneaks up and grows on you like it sometimes does here, that’s the only word that works.

Like its fellow “MotorStorm” games, “MotorStorm Apocalypse” is an off-road racing game with a taste for physics that is unquenchable. Dune buggies, rally cars, motorcycles, sports cars, monster trucks, ATVs and big rigs all share the same track, and the game just slightly exaggerates the properties you’d expect from each vehicle to create some seriously chaotic races.

The controlled chaos that ensues isn’t for everyone now any more than it has been since the first “MotorStorm” game debuted in 2006. But for those who can get into it, there isn’t anything else out there quite like it. “Apocalypse’s” vehicles are squirrelly and very prone to subtle but unmistakable overreactions to jumps, bumps, boosts and anything else that forces a sudden change in speed or orientation.

What makes these brief losses of control perfectly acceptable is the terrific way “Apocalypse” compensates with an equally generous allowance for recovery. Provided you understand the properties of the vehicle you’re driving — bikes are fast and super responsive but extremely fragile, for instance, while trucks cannot change course nearly as quickly but are durable enough to use smaller vehicles to couch a spinout — “Apocalypse’s” responsiveness overcomes its lust for weighty physics just enough to never leave you feeling totally out of control for very long. The line it toes between control and bedlam is razor-thin, but it toes it beautifully.

The “MotorStorm” method looks ever more impressive with “Apocalypse” changing the setting from jungles and beaches to cities and suburbs — and doing so at no expense to the series’ off-road roots.

A goofy (in a good way, complete with cheesy motion-comic presentation) story explains all, but the gist of “Apocalypse” is this: A major city is about to get pummeled by a rogue’s gallery of natural disasters, and while all but a few stubborn citizens flee for safety, a gang of daredevil racers decide to use the city — and the ensuing disaster — as grounds for a competition.

It may not be a smart idea, but it’s a visually spectacular one. Best of all, it regularly sneaks up on you. During the course of a three-lap race, an earthquake might hit early and turn cracking roads into buckling waves and ramps, which you can hit to catch air and land atop a building the moment after it topples. Tidal waves and tornados change the routes you can take from lap to lap, and during the game’s best moments, it transforms from a street racer into an off-road racer right before your eyes. “Apocalypse’s” weather and other effects look awesome, and the game as a whole animates beautifully, but its that gradual transformation over the course of a race that’s most impressive.

Structurally, “Apocalypse” pretty closely resembles its predecessors, complementing a satisfying single-player mode with splitscreen (four players, with the option to fill the remaining slots with A.I. racers) and online (16 players) multiplayer. A persistent milestone track awards you with unlockable perks, medals and new parts, which you can use to design and share customized vehicles with friends.

Unfortunately, the current Playstation Network outage means there’s no way to test the online functionality yet. If “Apocalypse’s” multiplayer fidelity is a make-or-break factor in your decision to purchase or pass, you’ll need to wait a little longer to make a choice.

—–

Lego Battles: Ninjago
For: Nintendo DS
From: Hellbent Games/TT Games/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

Inevitably, somebody was going to wise up and design a real-time strategy game that would allow kids and absolute novices to cut their teeth on the genre without getting completely demoralized in the process.

Arguably, “Lego Battles: Ninjago” succeeds at doing exactly that. Just as arguably, though, it goes overboard in its attempt to do so.

Conceptually and structurally, “Ninjago” has its head in the right place. The Lego license, and TT Games’ impressive aptitude for mining it for comedic storytelling, gets the storytelling off to an entertaining start before passing the baton to the tutorial.

From here, “Ninjago” demonstrates a fundamental understanding of how to create a strategy game that feels like its bigger-budget contemporaries without overwhelming new players the way those games would. Controls work as you expect via the touch screen, and while the smaller screen sometimes makes it tricky to select specific units precisely, it works pretty well with practice. That holds true as well for the overlying interface, which lays out a host of management tools — a mini-map, resource tallies, build queues, objectives and more — in a way that’s easy to manage and rarely intrusive.

Unfortunately, where “Ninjago” goes a bit too far in the user-friendliness department is in the action itself, which rarely provides players with any serious adversity to overcome.

Too many missions force players to seek and attack rather than defend, which tends to limit the amount of creativity you can apply to your battle plan. That’d be unfortunate even if “Ninjago” provided you with fair fights to win, but there is almost never an instance in which your troops do not outnumber and overpower the enemy battalion by several degrees.

Short of malicious neglect of your troops, it’s awfully hard to lose a fight, and even kids who are completely green in the art of troop management should back their way into conquests with little trouble. Contemporary kids’ games are generally bad about underestimating the abilities of their audience, and while “Ninjago’s” lack of credit is no more offensive than that of other kids’ games, it’s harder for a slower-paced game like this to hide it.

The sum total is a game that’s impressive and underwhelming all at once. Ultimately, until a better challenger comes along, it’s still easy to recommend to parents with kids who want to graduate to “StarCraft” someday but have nothing to play with in the meantime. Even with the disappointing lack of difficulty, “Ninjago” succeeds in providing a pretty spot-on introduction to real-time strategy games, and between the story mode and a secondary skirmish mode that includes a handful of popular match types (tower defense, capture the flag, king of the hill and more), it’s definitely comprehensive.

Provided you have a friend with a second copy of the game, “Ninjago’s” two-player local wireless multiplayer is the best news of all. All the single-player skirmish matches make the move over to this area, and even the most unseasoned human opponent should provide a more unpredictable resistance than the A.I. does. It’s in this department where “Ninjago” most closely reaches its potential as a strategy game that doesn’t play down to its audience. Unfortunately, because you need one copy of the game per system, it’s also the one area players are most likely to never experience.

—–

The Fancy Pants Adventures
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Borne Games/Over The Top Games/EA2D
ESRB
Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $10

“The Fancy Pants Adventures” began life as a Flash game, but don’t dismiss it because of its origins. The Flash-esque graphics — flat and hand-drawn — are simple, but they perfectly complement some seriously fluid animation. That animation, in turn, allows “Adventures” to be a slightly different flavor of 2D platformer — one that depends heavily on wall jumps, slides and momentum as well as the usual running and jumping to fly through levels from bottom to top as well as left to right. All of this translates seamlessly from the keyboard to the gamepad, and “Adventures” considerably builds around the original game with a story mode and a large handful of mini-games and bonus levels that test players’ speed and ability to chain together acrobatic maneuvers. For the truly compulsive, it goes deeper than that: “Adventures” scatters collectibles and hidden challenge rooms all over each level, and maneuvering through the levels to find those rooms is just as fun as entering them and completing the challenge. You can blow through the story in a couple hours or so, but players bent on seeing and completing everything the game offers will be at it for many hours longer than that. If you need help, “Adventures” offers co-op support (four players, locally or online), but be warned: Like “New Super Mario Bros. Wii,” the game includes the means and motivations for players to toss their good intentions aside and gleefully antagonize each other instead.


Games 4/12/11: The 3rd Birthday, Mayhem, StarDrone

The 3rd Birthday
For: Playstation Portable
From: HexaDrive/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, strong language, violence)

It’s been a long time — 10 years — since we last saw Aya Brea in “Parasite Eve II,” and for those who cared about the games she was in rather than Aya herself, this likely isn’t the homecoming you had in mind.

Officially, “The 3rd Birthday” marks the continuation of the “Eve” storyline, an opera of mutated monkeys, genetic engineering and spontaneous combustion that’s entirely too bizarre to explain succinctly. Unofficially, it doesn’t much matter: Only a few other characters make the crossover from “Eve” to “Birthday,” and while there are definite ties to the past — Manhattan and Christmas Eve really do not mix in Aya’s world — the new storyline feels more like a fresh crisis for a familiar face than something reliant on events whose explanations exist in a decade-old game.

More to the point, though, “Birthday” doesn’t play anything like the “Eve” games, which creatively layered role-playing game elements atop horror gameplay from the “Resident Evil” playbook.

“Birthday,” by contrast, is a third-person shooter, and even by the classifications of that genre, it falls heavily on the arcadey side. A heavy infusion of storytelling directs the action, but most of the time, you enter an area, the music swells, you clear the area of monsters, move to the next area and repeat. The game compensates for the PSP’s lack of a second stick by using the left trigger to lock onto enemies and making aiming mostly unnecessary, which in turn transforms “Birthday” into a run-and-gun shooter that rarely stops running and gunning.

If it sounds repetitive — especially stretched across the 12 or so hours “Birthday” needs to weave yet another enjoyably labyrinthine story — that’s because it is. But the general fast pace of the action means it also stays fresher than if “Birthday” moved at the speed of a traditional third-person shooter.

“Birthday” also helps itself by throwing in some oddball mechanics that, while often confusingly explained, do serve their purpose.

Because Aya is more a spiritual presence in these shootouts instead of there in the flesh (crazy story explains, don’t worry), you’re free to “jump” into the bodies of your human allies, control their movements, and jump at will from body to body. As long as the body Aya assumes doesn’t die, neither does she, and being able to leap around the environment so quickly allows her to flank enemies and use cover in some creative ways.

Other tricks aren’t quite as significant but do come in handy. Aya can use the same trick to temporarily jump into the bodies of weakened enemies and destroy them from within, and a limited-use trick called Liberation temporarily makes her an invincible force of nature. “Birthday” doesn’t give you much in the way of tactical controls over your allies, but it is possible to duck behind cover, direct crossfire on a specific enemy, and either evade the enemy or finish it off while your allies concentrate their fire that way.

If you like “Birthday’s” brand of shooting enough at its outset, the flavor these mechanics provide — along with an elaborate weapons/armor upgrade system and a completely convoluted (but, once you get it, pretty cool) means of upgrading Aya’s DNA — should keep it in your favor while the story does what it does. “Eve’s” unique gameplay remains missed, but “Birthday” carries on the series’ quirky storytelling disposition, and that may be the more important of the two legacies here.

—–

Mayhem
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Left Field Productions/Rombax Games/Evolved Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (violence)

From the numerous mentions of 3D in the marketing to the two pairs of 3D glasses bundled inside, “Mayhem” makes a pretty big deal about its stereoscopic 3D capabilities. Unfortunately, it’s much ado about nothing: The glasses are the old-fashioned red and blue variety, and the results of using them — so-so results for some, headaches for most — is the same it’s always been with that kind of 3D technology.

Fortunately, the 3D is optional and disabled by default. Twice as fortunately, “Mayhem” doesn’t even need the gimmick, because it’s an entirely great time on its own merits.

In large part, that’s because “Mayhem” is the first game since 2007’s “FlatOut: Head On” to successfully attack a genre — destruction derby racing — that’s a no-brainer for gaming possibilities but also a magnet for lousy budget titles that don’t even try to do it right.

Like “FlatOut,” “Mayhem” splits its time between racing events (traditional race and longer elimination-style events) and car combat (a last-vehicle-standing destruction derby and an event where you must knock the opposing vehicles off the track and into pits before they do the same to you).

But speed and destruction are never mutually exclusive. “Mayhem’s” races — often set on figure eights and other tracks where you’ll run into cross- and opposing traffic — are wonderfully perilous, and taking first place is as much about knocking your opponents off the track as it is about boosting past them down a straightaway. Conversely, because the combat arenas are nice and large, you’re afforded plenty of room to attack with purpose, finesse and speed instead of merely bump and react.

“Mayhem’s” driving physics, which vary nicely across 120 delightfully clunky sedans, wagons, trucks and even monster trucks, play their part perfectly. They’re a little squirrelly, which can lead to your getting turned completely around in a race where you trade paint and lose the fight, but they’re more than sufficiently responsive in terms of steering and cornering. The action is fast without feeling needlessly unwieldy, and there’s an unmistakable weight to the vehicles that does not come at the expense of their handling. Everything feels just right.

Though the 3D experiment isn’t a rousing success, “Mayhem’s” graphic novel-style presentation gives the game a striking visual personality anyway. Nearly the entirety of the game — vehicles, tracks, arenas — appears in stark black and white, with the only sources of color being a blood red skyline and the occasional bright yellow “BAM!” that pops in after a particularly vicious collision. The unique look is a jaw-dropper at first, and it surprisingly doesn’t get stale or even get in the way once you grow accustomed to it. Credit the level of detail in the cars and tracks, which squeeze as much out of that minimal color palette as could possibly be expected.

If “Mayhem” hobbles anywhere, it’s in the longevity department, but the budget asking price goes a long way toward mitigating even this concern. The game’s career mode can be finished off in four hours or so, and outside of unlocking all the vehicles, there’s little else in the way of dangling carrots. But the racing is fun, fast and distinct enough to make “Mayhem” replayable simply on the merits of replaying it for fun, and if you have friends whose taste in racing games runs parallel to yours, the simple but sufficient multiplayer support (two players split-screen, eight online) has your back.

—–

StarDrone
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: TastyPlay/Beatshapers
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

To really understand “StarDrone” is to see it in action rather than read about it on paper, be
cause while it combines things we’ve all seen before (a little bit of pinball, a little bit of “Breakout” and a little bit of “Spider-Man”-style web slinging physics), describing exactly how it comes together doesn’t do justice to the unwieldy but very satisfying way these elements collide. Though other objectives factor in, the general goal in “StarDrone” is to manage those physics in a way that gets your ship around each of the 53 levels and clears the area of collectible stars (or, later on, enemies) in as little time as possible. But you don’t control the ship directly — enter slinging physics — and the levels are loaded with enough obstacles (some fatal, some not) to make getting around, much less quickly, easier said than done. For the impatient, “StarDrone” may even be too unwieldy to truly enjoy. But for the player who loves nothing more than to replay levels in hopes of shaving a second off that finishing time and shoot for each level’s gold medal score, this is pretty much bliss. The truly bold will appreciate the clever ability to adjust “StarDrone’s” speed on a 10-point scale, which makes ever faster times possible for those steady enough to handle the spike in recklessness. Just keep a DualShock handy if you want to do your best: “StarDrone’s” lauded Playstation Move support delivers as advertised, but it supports traditional controllers equally well, and the added precision they afford will come in handy come high score pursuit time.


Games 4/5/11: Yakuza 4, Shift 2: Unleashed, Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime

Yakuza 4
For: Playstation 3
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, sexual themes, strong language, violence)

For all the things we wish Sega would do differently with its iconic brands, it has been glorious in ensuring the “Yakuza” series — arguably its best active franchise — makes the journey from Japan to the hands of a modest but devoted American following.

And if you’re not part of that following yet? Don’t worry: You’re still warmly invited.

“Yakuza 4” continues the events as we left them in “Yakuza 3,” and the respect it pays to storyline continuity is another jewel in the crown of one of gaming’s best storytellers. For the uninitiated, Sega includes a nice “Reminisce” feature that recaps the previous games’ key milestones.

At the same time, “Yakuza 4” feels self-contained enough to allow fresh starters to jump in and quickly make acquaintance with the colorful residents of Japan’s fictitious Kamurocho district. That’s a credit to the game’s gift of character design, which shines even brighter than usual by dropping you into the shoes of four characters (including series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu) instead of just Kiryu himself. “Yakuza 4” pumps all four characters (and numerous supporting characters) with more personality than most games provide for their lead, and the effortlessness with which it changes moods — from pensive to sweet to darkly violent to wonderfully silly — is magnificent.

The same spirit infects the gameplay, which finds Sega tossing out mandatory and optional activities with abandon. Kamurocho is thick with diversions ranging from bowling to arcades to a humorously cheeky mini-game based around a massage parlor. You can gamble, play a karaoke rhythm game, be a good samaritan, chase criminals and even manage a hostess club — employee training, dress-up mini-game and all. Not everything works, but most of it does, and even when something falls short, it flounders with a degree of magnetism and humor that’s extremely unique. Seeing what bizarre surprise comes next is nearly as fun as taking the main story down its course.

As usual, “Yakuza 4’s” primary gameplay centers around hand-to-hand brawling that pits you against random street gangs and, eventually, crime family henchmen and lieutenants. Also predictably, it’s the highlight among highlights. Most brawls fall on the easier side, but they’re so fast and loose that it hardly matters. An experience points system gives you new moves to use as you progress, and the creative ways you can chain these moves — along with the ability to use whatever’s laying around as a weapon — makes for a brilliant 3D reinvention of the great 2D brawlers that thrived in the mid-1990s.

With all that said, it’s important to know going in that “Yakuza 4” does all the same things — whether you call them charms or annoyances — that have kept the series a cult favorite in America instead of a mass-market sensation. The visual presentation is loaded with great details, but in most facets — from graphical fidelity to menu design to the weird way random citizens pop in from nowhere as you tour the district — it shows its age. That goes as well for various little conveniences — designated save spots instead of autosave, for instance — that may or may not bother you.

Additionally, the storytelling (some of it voiced in Japanese with English subtitles, most of it using text only) is a big deal — to the tune of the occasional 30-minute block in which you do little more than press X to advance the dialogue. The story is so good that those who get into it won’t care, but if you’re allergic to stories in your games, you’ve been warned. (For whatever it’s worth, the spoken cutscenes are skippable.)

—–

Shift 2: Unleashed
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Slightly Mad Studios/EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild suggestive themes, mild violence)

Like its predecessor, “Shift 2: Unleashed” attempts to marry the intensity of arcade racing with the demands of simulation track racing, and like its predecessor, it superficially nails it.

The track and circuit designs are racing sim mainstays, and “Unleashed” includes an attention to physics, weight, tuning and driving interfaces that is part and parcel with that genre. But “Forza’s” fastest cars don’t scream down the track as furiously as “Unleashed’s” class D vehicles do in the career mode’s opening circuit, and even “Burnout” — a game known for its crashing first and racing second — can’t inspire the kind of dread you’ll feel when you oversteer a corner and are resigned to feel the full might of the genre’s most jarring crash sensation.

Unfortunately, it appears “Unleashed” took to heart the flak the original “Shift” got from sim aficionados who dismissed it as being too arcadey and easy. “Unleashed” takes a harder stab at its simulation side, but it’s a pretty blind stab, and the result is a multitude of problems far more significant than anything that ailed its predecessor.

The difference in “Unleashed’s” handling is immediately apparent if you spent any significant time with “Shift,” which understood the limitations of realism in a game where speed remained priority one.

“Unleashed” misses that point, and even on the easiest setting with assists on, the cars are overly prone to spinouts and vicious cycles in which you can’t stop oversteering to achieve stability unless you just brake entirely. Some cars, for some reason, struggle simply to drive straight from a stop. Practice (and, more importantly, a delicate steering touch) makes stable driving possible, but the sim/arcade compromise that powered “Shift” struggles in “Unleashed,” which punishes high-speed cornering far more than a thrill-hungry game, sim leanings or not, ever should.

But this wouldn’t be so troubling if it wasn’t compounded by A.I.-controlled drivers who apparently know something about driving these cars that you don’t. Accidentally tap an A.I. car from behind, and you’ll likely spin out while your opponent carries on — which would be fine if you didn’t consistently spin out when they tap you. Trading paint with opponents overwhelmingly ends in a lopsided defeat, and one costly mistake can prove too much to overcome when your opponents are so unlikely to make a mistake (much less pay for one). Just don’t expect the same courtesy when the situation’s reversed: Opponents can make your quarter-lap lead disappear in seconds, even on the easiest setting.

There’s nothing wrong with a challenging game, but the cliff wall “Unleashed” throws you into is aggravating because it so clearly contradicts the game’s pursuit of realism. Even if the serious crowd looked down on it, “Shift” successfully carved out a distinctive balance between two discordant racing styles. “Unleashed’s” careless tinkering with that balance, meanwhile, makes it a hard sell for both camps.

Too bad, too, because everything else — the visual presentation (including a new helmet camera view), the sense of speed, the car selection and how the good the action feels during those fleeting moments where it stays out of its own way — remains awesome.

“Unleashed” also includes a great feature set. The single-player career mode is deep, and both your solo and online efforts are tied under a single experience points system that constantly awards you points toward unlocking new cars and parts. EA’s Autolog social networking system, which made a terrific debut in last year’s “Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit,” returns here, and it remains a great (and never intrusive) way to share your “Unleashed” experience with friends who also are playing.

—–

Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Atari
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $15

Back when downloadable games cost $5, missteps and cut corners similar to those found in “Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime” were acceptable. But with higher prices comes a higher bar, and “Slime” — which attempts to apply the dual-stick shooter formula to a license seemingly fit for it — comes nowhere close to touching it. The structure — enter room, doors lock, kill ghosts, doors unlock, leave room, repeat — grows monotonous quickly, in part because the actual act of busting ghosts is hampered by imprecise controls and a proton stream that lacks impact. But it only gets worse, not better, when “Slime” provides new weapons to use, because whatever variety they introduce gets kneecapped by an intrusive contrivance that makes certain ghosts completely impervious to certain weapons. Once the difficulty spikes and the screen crowds with multiple varieties of ghosts, you’re constantly switching weapons according to the game’s demands instead of your own preferences. The resulting chaos is a nightmare when playing alone with three A.I.-controlled partners: Their poor battlefield awareness makes them sitting ducks during boss fights, which, along with the levels themselves, start to repeat during “Slime’s” back half. So if you must play “Slime,” you’d best find friends to assist you via co-op play (four players, online/offline). Just don’t bother if it’s fan service you’re after: Between the flat story presentation (blurry comic panels with way too much text considering the context) and the replacing of the Ghostbusters you know with a cast of unknowns, “Slime” falls short in this regard as well.


Games 3/29/11: Crysis 2, Playstation Move Heroes, Swarm, Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime

Crysis 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Crytek/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, strong language, violence)

At least nowadays, “Crysis 2” is a rare breed of first-person shooter. It tells a thoroughly epic story over 12 hours instead of four and within a single game instead of across a cliffhanger-riddled trilogy. Rather than start furiously and plateau, it also continually gets better as those hours pass.

Good thing, too, because the first two hours? Not so great.

The alien invasion of New York City eventually enters full bloom, but before you face it firsthand, you’ll have to contend with a private military that will kill you for your nanotechnological armor, which affords you superhuman physical abilities and the limited ability to cloak yourself and become nearly invincible.

“Crysis 2” flashes some of its gifts — particularly, the jaw-dropping transformation of Manhattan into a battlefield that’s crumbling all around you — during these skirmishes. But the human enemy A.I. is impossibly binary, with soldiers almost psychically pelting you with bullets one moment and completely losing track of your position the next. Your armor’s abilities come into play, but not nearly to their potential, and during the game’s flattest moments, you’re forced to mindlessly react rather than strategize.

But “Crysis 2” makes a furious rally once the corporation steps back and the aliens take over. Our invaders flash a much larger range of intelligence, which both makes them a more formidable enemy and frees you to use your setting, abilities and firearms to fight your way — stealthily, from a distance or violently barreling forward.

Without spoiling the details, things only improve going forward. Your armor’s abilities grow more durable, the alien forces respond in higher numbers, and “Crysis 2” drops you into one set piece after another and asks you to fend off enemies descending from all 360 degrees. The chaos increases, but the balance issues from earlier never return.

The relentless depiction of the invasion’s progress is similarly terrific. The “Crysis” brand is synonymous with graphical fidelity, and “Crysis 2” certainly delivers on that renown. But more than polygons or textures, it’s the real-time depiction of New York’s pending demise — buckling streets, crashing buildings, iconic architecture transformed to resemble the Death Star from “Return of the Jedi” — that will stick with you.

The devastation works in concert with a story that, even if it doesn’t make those early shootouts fun, most certainly justifies the private military’s inclusion in the fray. Again, no spoilers here. But the story starts with a bang, develops at a terrific pace throughout the campaign, and goes wonderfully (but sensibly) crazy during the homestretch. Ties to “Crysis” and the inevitable “Crysis 3” lie within, but overwhelmingly, this story soars without any dependency on prior or pending events.

Beyond the inability to play as the aliens — you’re fighting either as Marines or privatized military — “Crysis 2’s” online multiplayer (12 players) is similarly fulfilling. “Crysis”-themed variants on the usual match types make appearances, highlighted by a clever Crash Site mode in which teams race to extract energy from alien pods that crash-land in random locations. The maps are diverse, a full experience points system gradually unlocks new perks across a multitude of classes, and the flexibility with regard to private matches, options and matchmaking (including an area open strictly to inexperienced players) makes it very accessible.

Impressively, the multiplayer includes suit powers at no expense to its balance. Everybody starts off with basic cloaking and weapon resistance powers, but the powers hold a limited charge before needing a recharge. So you can use them as an impromptu crutch or a strategic catalyst, but not both at once. Choose carefully.

—–

Playstation Move Heroes
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Nihilistic Software/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

Let’s be clear: Even though the six characters who share the “Playstation Move Heroes” marquee originate from some of the best platforming games of the last decade, they’re strictly here as friendly faces on loan from that genre. The premise and structure allow “Heroes” to sometimes feel like more than a collection of not-quite-mini-games that use the Playstation Move controller in various ways, but broken down to its essentials, that’s what this is.

“Heroes” kicks off with a cute cutscene that brings our heroes (Jak, Daxter, Ratchet, Clank, Sly Cooper and Bentley) together, allows them to make their awkward acquaintance, and gives us a skeletal storyline that explains why they’re trapped in this alternate dimension. It doesn’t really make sense — picture a game show, hokey narrator and all, in which our heroes must rescue “fans” from peril in order to save themselves — but as excuses go, it’s well-made and good for some fun fan service.

The challenges that comprise “Heroes” mix and match different objectives (free fans, protect fans, survive an enemy onslaught) with five different play styles that utilize the Move controller in various ways. Basic melee combat works predictably — swing the Move wand to swing your character’s corresponding weapon — and a variant replaces that weapon with a whip that’s pretty fun to crack. Events designed around shooting enemies and targets with a blaster also function like you’d expect, with the wand becoming a makeshift blaster you point at the screen and fire.

“Heroes” shines brightest during the remaining two play styles, which center around bowling and disc throwing. In both cases, the motions you make are reflected in the strength and angle with which your character throws the disc or rolls the ball, and in both cases, you can continue steering the ball or disc after they’ve left your hand. You even can make the ball jump with a quick flick of the wand.

Trimmings like that, along with levels designed to take advantage of them, are what elevate “Heroes” from a vanilla mini-game collection to something a little more ambitious. Rolling a bowling ball at a target is one thing; rolling and steering it around a corner, over a blockade, up a ramp and into some pinball-style bumpers before manually detonating it is another.

“Heroes'” environments are large and elaborate — so much so that you need a Navigation or standard PS3 controller to freely move through them while the wand simultaneously handles other duties. Unlockables and score multiplayers are scattered everywhere, and netting gold medal-worthy scores requires a level of creativity and exploration that’s foreign to your typical mini-game collection.

But “Heroes” isn’t impervious to what ails its peers. Even with the extra coat of ambition, the events mix up only so much from instance to instance, and if you don’t enjoy revisiting old challenges in an attempt to attain gold medal scores across the entirety of the game, you might see all you want to see within a casual weekend of play.

Primarily, that’s due to the game’s unfortunate inability to parlay its events into any kind of competitive multiplayer format. “Heroes” supports two-player co-op, but the second player merely assists via a targeting reticule instead of as a second character. It’s fun, but it lacks the longevity a competitive format would have even with stripped-down versions of the various challenges.
Mini-game collections may be shallow, but they remain popular because they’re an easy choice for party game play, and “Heroes” cripples its long-term value by ignoring that point.

—–

Swarm
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Hothead Games/Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, cartoon violence)
Price: $15

Imagine a re-imagined “Lemmings” in which you control the Lemmings directly instead of simply guide them, and you have an inkling of an idea about “Swarm,” a sidescrolling platformer which tasks you with controlling 50 characters at once instead of one. The goal in “Swarm” is classically simple — get as many swarmites to the exit as possible, and rack up an impressive score by keeping your score multiplier high while also keeping swarmite casualties to a minimum. But that’s easier said than done. The adorable swarmites — bug-eyed blue aliens who demonstrate no free will and no desire to change that — are as stupid as they look, and they’re magnets for danger. Occasionally, when you need a few to sacrifice themselves to protect the rest, their stupidity is beneficial. Mostly, though, it’s just trouble, and when “Swarm’s” trickier levels ask you to perform maneuvers that would require finesse with one character, never mind 50, don’t be surprised to limp to the exit after witnessing the deaths of 500 Swarmites in a few minutes’ time. Level checkpoints frequently resupply your Swarmite army, but you’ll want to keep as many of your original 50 alive as possible in order to access certain level secrets and finish with a score high enough to unlock the next level. “Swarm’s” odd controls — lots of basic functions mapped to the triggers — take some practice, but mostly, the challenge it presents is the good kind. If you love your sidescrolling platformers, like being challenged, and crave something different, don’t skip this.

—–

Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network), Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade) and Windows PC
From: Atari
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
Price: $15

Back when downloadable games cost $5, missteps and cut corners similar to those found in “Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime” were easily accepted. But with a higher price comes a higher bar, and “Slime” — which attempts to apply the dual-stick shooter formula to a license seemingly fit for it — comes nowhere close to reaching it. The structure — enter room, doors lock, kill ghosts, doors unlock, leave room, repeat — grows monotonous in a hurry, in part because the actual act of busting ghosts is hampered by imprecise controls and a proton stream that lacks impact. But it only gets worse, not better, when “Slime” provides new weapons to use, because whatever variety they introduce gets kneecapped by an intrusive contrivance that makes certain ghosts completely impervious to certain weapons. Once the difficulty spikes and the screen crowds with multiple varieties of ghosts, you’re constantly switching weapons according to the game’s demands instead of your own preferences. The resulting chaos is a nightmare when playing alone with three A.I.-controlled partners: Their poor battlefield awareness makes them sitting ducks during boss fights, which, along with the levels themselves, start to repeat during “Slime’s” back half. So if you must play “Slime,” you’d best find friends to assist you via co-op play (four players, online/offline). Just don’t bother if it’s fan service you’re after: Between the flat story presentation (blurry comic panels with way too much text considering the context) and the replacing of the Ghostbusters you know with a cast of unknowns, “Slime” falls short in this regard as well.


Games 3/22/11: Top Spin 4, Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars, Eat Them!

Top Spin 4
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii
From: 2K Czech/2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

There may be no harder needle to thread than the one that forces you to take a great but steeply difficult tennis simulation (“Top Spin 3”) and scale back in a way that makes it more accessible without leaving the devoted feeling alienated.

Fortunately in this case, “Top Spin 4” could teach a class on how to do it right.

In essence, all “TS4” does is level out the mountain without making it a shorter climb to the top. Anyone who wants to simply press the face buttons to return standard-issue shots may do so — and if you’re quick on your feet and smart about your shot selection, you can win this way as well.

But avenues for excellence abound. Holding down those same buttons can result in a more powerful version of the shot — provided you time it right. A well-timed shot in conjunction with the stick allows you to better place your shot, while a couple of modifiers allow for advanced maneuvers like reversing orientation and performing drop shots.

“TS4” ties it all together under a currency — timing — that’s tricky to master but always makes sense. The harder the shot, the more timing matters, and a perfectly-timed standard shot will take you farther than a power slice that’s sabotaged by late contact.

(A brief sidebar about “TS4’s” Playstation Move integration: It’s as tacked-on as tacked-on gets, and doesn’t work well at all.)

“TS4” lays this out across an extensive Tennis Academy mode, and while it’s never mandatory — the game boots into a free-form practice court for those who prefer to experiment without interference — it’s highly recommended you pay a visit. “TS4” sports a terrifically user-friendly interface throughout the game, and the efficiency with which the Academy introduces the spectrum of available techniques is nearly as impressive as the spectrum itself.

The sum of all this accessibility and shot science — along with the series’ customary attention to animation, weight and momentum with regard to player movement — makes “TS4” an enviably faithful representation of the energy and strategy that comprises a professional tennis match. A great sports sim has to understand the “easy to play, difficult to master” credo better than most other genres, and this one nails it.

In terms of features, “TS4” mostly goes where past games have been. The career mode once again is the highlight: You design your own tennis pro via a satisfyingly deep player editor, are presented with a calendar of events, and are free each month to engage in one practice event and one tournament for which you qualify.

Predictably, your success in your career — and subsequent ability to enter prime events (US Open and Roland Garros, among others, though Wimbledon is omitted due to licensing reasons) against the 25 licensed stars (Nadal, Federer, Serena Williams and a few legends like Agassi and Borg) — is dependent on your popularity and tour ranking. But “TS4” dangles additional carrots by giving you coaches who each have their own challenges to complete, and there are additional objectives within the practice events that reward bonus experience points that boost your player’s attributes.

The best news about the experience system is that it’s game-wide: Win matches online with your created player, and points funnel into your career progress (and vice versa). “TS4” cleverly adds cachet to online play by inviting all comers to participate in an online World Tour, an accelerated season mode that each week crowns its top-rated player as champion for all to see. For the less ambitious, standalone exhibition matches (singles and four-player doubles, online or offline) are still available as well.

—–

Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows PC, PSP, Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS
From: TT Games/LucasArts
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor)

If you’re hoping “Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars” signals the long-overdue revamping of the Lego games — which, despite remaining fun since the original “Lego Star Wars” surprised everybody, have evolved in the last six years about as much as a Sequoia does in the same period of time — keep on hoping.

If, however, you haven’t tired of the formula and want to see it applied to gigantic battlefields crawling with enemies from end to end, “Wars” has your number.

Just be prepared to not like everything you see. Combat has always been a Lego game weakness, and blasting the scope wide open merely leaves that weakness in its least flattering light yet.

As the title infers, “Wars” takes place during the Clone Wars, kicking off at the end of “Attack of the Clones” and continuing through the “Clone Wars” television show’s first two seasons. As always, the storytelling is a huge strength, with Lego characters recreating iconic moments via pantomiming and slapstick that is legitimately funny.

“Wars” features a share of typical Lego game levels, with one or two players controlling multiple characters as they fight some enemies and solve some puzzles. But the game’s centerpiece levels expand the field of play considerably in an attempt to replicate the large-scale battles that are the hallmark of the Clone Wars era.

During these levels, “Wars” blurs the lines between play styles and even genres. Unlike the typical levels, which tend to take place either exclusively on foot or exclusively in a vehicle, the battles are large enough to let you switch freely between foot and vehicular travel. You even can hijack enemy vehicles.

But “Wars” really shoots for the moon by layering some light real-time strategy atop the action. The battlefields are divided into bases, and completely clearing an enemy base of its cannons, barracks and communications devices frees you to build your own structures in their place. Certain clone troopers can even command battalions of troopers to take out barriers and enemy structures, though the game’s controls and A.I. are too unwieldily to make this preferable to just doing it yourself.

In fact, unless you play cooperatively with a friend, get ready to do everything yourself. “Wars” constantly has you in a party of two to four characters (not counting battalions), and while the game assumes control of the other characters, their A.I. is so dreadful that they regularly stand still doing nothing while dozens of enemies pelt you to pieces. The penalty for death remains minuscule — you lose some points and respawn like nothing happened — but it’s still annoying to constantly die while trying to fight the whole Separatist Army yourself and also do everything else necessary to advance through the level. This has always been an issue, but with the exponential enemy increase, it’s now a full-blown aggravation. The camera, which inexplicably remains fixed and at an angle that hides entirely too much enemy activity from your view, doesn’t help either.

For those who lack the luxury of a couch companion, more bad news: Online co-op in “Wars” continues to elude a series whose pitiful friendly A.I. is crying out for it. The continued omission of this feature heads the list of grievances — an archaic overall game structure, some pitifully threadbare “explanations” of how the new strategy elements work — that imply the developers are just phoning it in.

Too bad,
too, because “Wars'” competitive multiplayer — a simple but enjoyable two-player version of the battlefield levels — would have worked far better online than via splitscreen.

—–

Eat Them!
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: FluffyLogic/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, cartoon violence)
Price: $10

The “them” in “Eat Them!” is people, but don’t worry: You’re a gigantic monster rampaging through a city, and the soldiers and cops trying to hurt you are your only source of health, so your conscience is clear. “Them” attempts to spice up the potential monotony of destroying cities by mixing up the objectives — a timed checkpoint race here, a mission that has you escorting tiny escaped convicts there. But outside of a few scenarios, the game incorporates city-wide destruction into pretty much every facet of its action, and the act of punching, kicking, shooting and even jumping on top of crumbling buildings is as darkly satisfying here as it was in “Rampage!” 25 years ago. “Them” tell a particularly deep story, but the little storytelling it does looks great thanks to a comic book-themed presentation and bright, cel-shaded graphics. Every mission has medal-worthy scores to achieve, and attaining silver and gold medals rewards you with new monster parts, which you can use to create your own Frankenmonster in the monster lab. The game’s difficulty spikes somewhat after the first batch of missions, but if you have a friend with a similar appetite for mischief, you can take on the missions together in a nicely chaotic local co-op mode. (Online co-op, unfortunately, didn’t make the cut.)


Games 3/8/11: MLB 11 The Show, Fight Night Champion, Pixeljunk Shooter 2

MLB 11: The Show
For: Playstation 3
From: San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It took “MLB 11: The Show” three years longer than it took “MLB 2K” to map pitching, hitting and fielding controls to the right analog stick.

At least with regard to pitching, though, it took the series only one attempt to do what 2K Sports can’t and get it right.

At bat and in the field, “MLB The Show 11’s” controls are pretty standard issue — pull back and push the stick to swing, flick or hold the stick in the direction of a base to make a soft or hard (respectively) throw. Both work fine, neither breaks major ground, and even though the new fielding metrics leave committing errors up to you instead of up to chance, the game’s endless array of options allow you to revert to the button-based controls if you prefer them.

Pitching, however, is another story. In contrast to 2K’s convoluted gestures system, “MLB11” opts for a deceptively simple, golf game-style system that has you pulling back on the stick to determine power and pushing forward for location.

What makes it special is how magnificently this little pitching meter can split the difference between good strikes and bad ones. Pulling and pushing a straight line to throw a pitch straight down the middle is easy. But if you want to throw Major League strikes (hitting the corners, locating breaking pitches so they just scrape the zone), you need to curve the stick ever so gracefully — enough to move the pitch, but not so much to miss the strike zone entirely. The pitch meter lets you know exactly how you need to curve it, so there’s no confusion when a pitch misses the mark. But consistently putting the soft touch on a paralyzing strike takes legitimate skill that rewards you far beyond merely throwing hittable strikes, and this is the first analog control scheme that understands and embraces that difference.

The successful analog control implementation easily is “MLB11’s” finest addition to what already was the industry’s best baseball game, and it’s arguably the only change that alters the gameplay on a fundamental level.

But that, naturally, depends on how deep your fandom goes. Because while casual fans may not realize “MLB11” includes 30 camera presets to match all 30 teams’ local broadcast perspectives, fans who religiously watch their team’s broadcasts certainly will. “MLB11” allows players to customize the cameras in whatever weird way they please, but the presets are as apt a reflection on the game’s attention to detail as anything else. As usual, the game looks marvelous in action, and as usual, there’s a new crop of animations and other visual touches — some obvious, like dynamic weather, but most not — for attentive baseball fans to discover.

A number of preexisting features make nice strides as well. Two players can team up for local/online co-op, and “MLB11” lets you divvy up positions so each player controls half the lineup. The Road to the Show career mode returns with a significantly deeper player creator and position-specific minor league depth charts that affect your advancement through the farm. Online league tweaks include support for A.I.-controlled teams in the event you can’t round up 29 friends. The Home Run Derby mode, meanwhile, supports Playstation Move, a smart decision that leaves “MLB11’s” core control where it belongs but lets players do the one baseball-related thing — swing a bat really hard — that definitely benefits from Move support.

“MLB11’s” wild card is the Challenge of the Week, an online skills competition that hadn’t yet premiered as of press time. Entering once weekly is free, while subsequent entries will cost you 25 real cents. But Sony is justifying that fee by awarding real prizes to competition winners, so if you’re good enough, that price might be a bargain.

—–

Fight Night Champion
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, strong language, violence)

Sports games have gone down the storyline route before, but typically it’s in the form of a branching career mode that tells its story through boilerplate text. “Fight Night” has done that for years, and with the Legacy mode, “Fight Night Champion” does it again.

This time, though, the Legacy mode plays second fiddle to a new Champion mode that, while short and linear, goes all-in in terms of storytelling. Instead of text, “Champion” offers up full-blown cutscenes, complete with plot twists, crooked refs, villainous promoters and, waiting at the end, the scariest bad-guy boxer since Ivan Drago.

For the most part, Champion mode delivers, even if what it delivers is a torrent of boxing movie tropes on caffeine. The story’s predictable, but it’s absorbing, and its best moments apply story-mandated conditions to bouts that you must overcome — often at the expense of your traditional instincts.

Unfortunately, the only time the idea backfires is during the final bout, when contrivance — during the first two rounds, your opponent is invincible and can end you with a single punch — badly undercuts the moment. This isn’t “Punch-Out,” and while the title fight certainly tests your ability to defend yourself, it still undermines what should have been a terrific demonstration of a polished boxing system during what arguably is the game’s most important bout.

Fortunately, while Champion Mode ends on a down note, it’s only part of “Champion’s” package, which otherwise brings back traditional “Fight Night” features — the Legacy mode, a 50-plus-strong roster of licensed fighters, local/online multiplayer, an absolutely limitless tool for designing and sharing customized boxers — in their best light yet.

Most impressive is the boxing itself, which feels like a culmination of all the reinventing that took place during the previous two “Fight Night” games.

Like “Fight Night Round 4,” the action is fast, but not dumb. “Champion” heavily rewards players who learn to dodge, block and land counterpunches, which look terrifically painful thanks to the camera angles and swift camera pans the game uses.

Also per “Round 4,” punching is handled through different movements on the right joystick. But “Champion” makes some nice concessions by replacing the needlessly complicated gestures with simpler motions that better accommodate the fast pace. “Champion” also brings back “Round 3’s” button controls, and players can freely switch between the two schemes and even use them simultaneously without visiting the options menu.

The only in-ring stumble comes from the addition of referees to the action. They look good, but they regularly get in between you and your boxer, which can be aggravating when you’re going for a knockdown and your opponent clenches you while the ref’s shirt blocks your view.

In terms of core features, the Legacy mode returns mostly as it was in “Round 4,” albeit with some new training/business opportunities and minor tweaks in terms of overall level progression. Ditto for the custom boxer editor, which was massively versatile already and only benefits from the extra coat of graphical polish applied across the whole game.

Online, though, “Champion” makes some nice new strides. Players can form up by creating and joining each other’s gyms — basically the boxing game equivalent to clan support found in online shooters. Your online boxer’s abilities improve as you fight and accrue experience, and you can enter tournaments and even compete for community-wide titl
e belts. It’s basically the Legacy mode, but with more freedom, human competition, and the potential for glory on a much larger scale for your created boxer. If you’re good enough to hang in this company, it’s far more rewarding than its single-player counterpart.

—–

Pixeljunk Shooter 2
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Q-Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

“Pixeljunk Shooter 2” doesn’t mess too heavily with the mechanics that powered its terrific 2009 predecessor, which took the twin-stick arcade shooter down a more heroic road by tasking players with shooting away cave walls and using chemistry and physics to rescue miners trapped inside. Instead, it builds on it. As inferred by the first game’s great endgame twist, “PJS2” begins not inside a cave, but in the belly of a giant beast. And in addition to contending with (and utilizing) lava, water and other elements to alter the environment for safe passage, you must now do the same with biological compounds whose chemic properties are a little less obvious. Similarly, while enemies were present in “PJS1,” they’re a much more formidable force this time, and “PJS2” divides its time between thoughtful exploration and intense arcade combat. Some won’t appreciate the more frantic direction, but Q-Games plays fair by making “PJS2” a longer game with levels large enough to accommodate both speeds without putting them in each other’s way. The higher overall difficulty makes “PJS2’s” offline co-op support even more valuable than it was last time, though the omission of an online counterpart is that much more unfortunate as well. Perhaps as compensation, “PJS2” at least introduces competitive online support via a fun one-on-one duel in which players scramble to rescue and return more miners to their respective bases. Q-Games even gives the mode legs with a surprising array of rewards that unlock as players accrue experience points in ranked competition.


Games 3/1/11: Bulletstorm, Ys I & II Chronicles, Dreamcast Collection, Back to the Future E1

Bulletstorm
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: People Can Fly/Epic Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol)

With respect to the hard-working people who brought “Bulletstorm’s” sound design to life, few would blame you for playing this first-person shooter with your sound muted.

“Bulletstorm’s” storyline is infested with cliches, and its characters are massively unlikable meatheads who inspire no rooting interest whatsoever. It initially feels like a spoof in the “so bad, it’s good” vein, but too many turns for the melodramatic make it clear this wasn’t the intention.

“Bulletstorm’s” comedic antidote for the encroaching melodrama is to take dirty words that make second-graders giggle and jam them into sentences in ways that intentionally make no sense. Hilarious, right? Nope, and you need not find swearing remotely offensive to be put off by the notion that something’s funny simply because somebody blurted out a word you can’t print here. It’s immediately lame, and hearing the same gag ad nauseam over “Bulletstorm’s” six-hour campaign is nauseating. (There’s a toggle to disable “mature” language — calling it that is unintentionally funnier than the entirety of “Bulletstorm’s” script — but that won’t fix everything else that ails the story.)

But “Bulletstorm’s” problems go deeper than storytelling. Though the levels look pretty, their construction — too many tight corridors, too little room for meaningful strategy, laughable attempts at “puzzle”-solving — are uninspired. The enemy A.I. occasionally falls apart, with a half-dozen baddies all targeting you despite the nearly constant presence of two allies by your side. Your allies are even worse, regularly standing out of position, blocking your view or just doing nothing while those aforementioned enemies dig in. It makes the omission of online campaign co-op even more regrettable than it already was.

Good thing, then, that “Bulletstorm” at least does some things no other shooter does. If it didn’t, the aforementioned roster of problems would be impossible to overcome.

“Bulletstorm’s” big hook is the notion of killing with style. You can shoot a guy if you want, but why do that when, for instance, you can pull a gigantic seed toward you with your energy leash, kick the seed so it lands on an enemy’s head, pull the enemy in with the leash, kick him into the air and fire a shot that launches him into a gigantic cactus? Doing that nets you more points, which function as currency toward purchasing weapons and ammo. In the game’s best move, it gives you an in-game database of every possible stylish kill and challenges you to achieve all 131 of them.

Default weapon aside, “Bulletstorm’s” guns are satisfyingly powerful and fun to use, and the leash — which you crack like a whip to yank enemies and objects toward you for additional manipulation — adds a fun, mischievous wrinkle. Your kick, meanwhile, is as straightforward as it sounds but similarly fun to use because it’s cartoonishly overpowering.

The moment-to-moment insanity afforded by these abilities does much to compensate for all “Bulletstorm” does poorly, but the novelty also has an expiration date. It starts wearing thin about halfway through, and the final few chapters — which find the A.I. and level-design problems at their worst — are a grind.

It’s no mystery why “Bulletstorm” nixed competitive multiplayer, which would have been disastrous with everyone booting and leashing each other constantly.

But whether Anarchy mode — which allows four players to fight cooperatively online (and collect special multiplayer-only skillshots) against up to 20 waves of enemies — provides satisfactory compensation is debatable. Anarchy is “Bulletstorm” at its best — no annoying story, no useless friendly A.I. — but even competing for the high score won’t fully scratch whatever itch you might have for human competition.

—–

Ys I & II Chronicles
For: Playstation Portable
From: Falcom/XSEED
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, blood, mild fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes, partial nudity)

Dreamcast Collection
For: Xbox 360
From: Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone to Teen (mild violence, suggestive themes, language)

What follows is a tale of two retro compilations — one from a publisher that understands its audience, the other from one that seemingly couldn’t care less.

“Ys I & II Chronicles” represents the umpteenth time the first two games in the “Ys” series, which debuted nearly 24 years ago, have been released, rereleased, remade and/or retouched. “Chronicles” most closely resembles a 2001 PC remake that never released in America, and in addition to the graphical and storytelling upgrades that premiered with that version, this edition includes a terrific new remixing of the games’ wonderful musical score, three versions of which are selectable in-game. “Chronicles'” initial printing comes packaged with a soundtrack CD containing the score, and if you’re part of the audience XSEED is targeting with this release, you understand why that’s no trivial bonus.

As perhaps goes without saying, the only thing that remains dated as ever is the first-generation “Ys” gameplay, which resembles a classic role-playing game but employs a strange semi-real-time combat system that merely asks players to “bump” into enemies in a certain way and let the stats sort out the battle. It was weird then, and it’s old and even weirder now. But it still works, and because it’s the primary reason “Ys” stood out from its peers back in its original iteration, the developers would be crazy to mess with its integrity.

“Chronicles” might be an odd mix of old and new, but it’s a polished and faithful mix that makes smart decisions about what to change and what to preserve. Series devotees should be pleased, even if they’ve played these games inside out already.

Sega’s “Dreamcast Collection,” by contrast, is a collection made for whomever and for reasons unexplainable beyond cash grabbing.

For starters, the four selections — “Crazy Taxi,” “Sonic Adventure,” “Sega Bass Fishing” and “Space Channel 5 Part 2” — don’t exactly embody what people loved about Sega’s Dreamcast console. “Taxi’s” probably the darling of the bunch, but it’s also available as a $10 standalone download.

All four of these games, in fact, either are or will be available as Xbox Live downloads — which is why Sega chose them for inclusion. “Collection” doesn’t even bother modifying the boot code: Once you select a game from the top menu, you have to quit out to the Xbox dashboard and reboot “Collection” to select another one.

Such laziness might be OK if “Collection” at least did the one thing — give you $40 worth of good downloadable games for $30 — it set out to do.

But “Sonic Adventure’s” control and camera issues — which were problematic by 1999 standards, to say nothing of 2011 — remain intact. “Crazy Taxi’s” physics and driving controls are way too touchy with the Xbox 360’s controller, and Sega didn’t even bother to map the reverse gear to the left trigger, which racing games have been doing for nearly a decade now.

“Space Channel 5 Part 2’s” uniqueness has allowed it to age a little better, because even with the advent of rhythmic music games, nothing plays quite like it. But its timing demands remain uncommonly stiff — now to the point where it feels broken on the more responsive 360 controller. “Sega Bass Fishing,” meanwhile, was only notable in its day because it supported a bizarre fishing reel controller that obviously doesn’t work on the 360. Why bring this back? Who knows.

Sega didn’t have to reinvent these games to justify selling them again, but even a little effort — controller concessions, interface redesigns, widescreen support for all games — would have done wonders for convincing us it cares at all about this collection. But it doesn’t, so neither should you.

—–

Back to the Future: Episode One: It’s About Time
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
Also available for: Windows PC, Macintosh, iPad
From: Telltale Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, language, mild violence)
Price: $20 for a PSN season pass (which gets you episodes two through five when they release on PSN); $25 for the season pass on PC/Mac; $7 for episode one separately on iPad

We’re not going to get a “Back to the Future IV,” but because the latest “BTTF” video game adaptation has landed in exactly the right hands, we no longer need it. “It’s About Time” isn’t a retelling of the movies: It’s a new story, set in 1986- and 1931-era Hill Valley, and it succeeds the events of the films, which still make their presence felt in some subtle, clever ways. Like most Telltale games, “Time” is a point-and-click adventure (optimized pretty painlessly for the PS3’s controller), and advancing through the story incurs a mix of saying the right things to the characters you (as Marty) meet and solving a few cause-and-effect puzzles to help trigger events beyond Marty’s direct control. In the case of this episode, that means meeting Doc Brown’s younger self in order to free the Doc you know and love from the local jailhouse. The puzzles aren’t exactly brainbusters, nor is “Time” a particularly lengthy game if you can quickly outsmart it. But those puzzles do their part in advancing a “BTTF” storyline that’s lain dormant for 21 years, and between the spot-on voice acting, the genuinely funny dialogue and the willingness to take creative license with the universe beyond what the movies provided, “Time” nails it. Like most Telltale releases, “Time” is merely the first of a five-episode pack you buy all at once, and if the teaser you see at the end of episode one is any indication, things will only get more interesting in episode two.

Games 2/22/11: de Blob 2, Stacking, Battleheart

de Blob 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Blue Tongue/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, mild language)

Any conversation about criminally overlooked Wii games should have “de Blob” in the first paragraph, if not the lead, so THQ deserves commendation for giving the series a second chance on more (and better) hardware.

Fundamentally, “de Blob 2” doesn’t break significant ground so much as make a more ambitious and more diverse return to form. You still play as Blob, a hyper-absorbent and deeply charming ball of goo whose primary abilities include rolling, jumping, smashing and absorbing different colors of paint, which he can use to turn the colorless buildings and citizens of Prisma City into their happy former selves.

To that end, the story remains the same: Free everyone and everything from the INKT Corporation’s monochromatic rule, in what almost certainly will be the cutest allegory you’ll ever see for regime takeover and democratic revolution. Like the first game, it’s charm run amok, with adorable character design, genuinely funny dialogue and a soundtrack that brilliantly bends to your actions in the game.

Primarily, the revolution comes via Blob painting every last square inch of “dB2’s” 11 levels, which also include missions centered around liberating citizens, sabotaging INKT technology and other objectives related to level design and story events.

The levels — which include a cola plant, a prison zoo and the Inktron Collider, to name three examples — are large enough to qualify as open worlds, and as long as time remains on the clock, Blob is free to tackle secondary objectives as well as main story missions in whatever fashion suits him. The clock is meant to keep players constantly moving, and it succeeds in just the right way: The time limits are generous on both difficulty settings, there are umpteen ways to add time, and once the main objectives are complete, the clock disappears and “dB2” lets you complete the rest of the level at your leisure.

All of this was true of “dB1,” too. But the series’ extremely unique underpinnings make the initial familiarity more forgivable than it might otherwise be, and the changes “dB2” does introduce are almost always welcome ones.

Most notable are the new sabotage missions that take Blob underground and play like a sidescrolling game instead of the traditional 3D action you see above ground. The new perspective lets “dB2” design a whole new flavor of challenges that still capitalize on the core concepts, and when these mini-levels bump up their difficulty later on, they occasionally outshine the bigger levels.

“dB2” also offers a limited offline co-op feature that allows a second player (as Blob’s friend Pinky) to shoot paint at environments, enemies and Blob himself using a targeting reticule. It isn’t nearly as involved as controlling Blob himself, but it adds a fun social element to the game, and if you’re playing the PS3 version, it’s an ideal use of the Playstation Move wand, which “dB2” supports throughout all its modes.

Elsewhere, the changes are customary but appreciated. The mission objectives are more diverse than last time, and “dB2” gradually introduces new powerups and gadgets that increase both Blob’s arsenal and the kind of missions he can encounter. It’s unquestionably more of the same basic gameplay, but the little surprises “dB2” reveals (three words: wrecking ball Blob) over its surprisingly lengthy adventure are enough to keep a great concept blessed with great execution going strong.

Provided you aren’t restricted to playing “dB2” on the Wii, the better hardware also helps. “dB2” looks terrific in high definition, and it benefits from a more traditional controller’s ability to control the camera without the kind of fuss that unfortunately comes standard on the Wii.

—–

Stacking
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Double Fine Productions/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (crude humor, mild cartoon violence, mild suggestive themes, use of tobacco)
Price: $15

This is what happens when a developer with big-budget talent and an independent spirit flourishes on a platform that allows it to flex both characteristics at once: You get a game in which you play as a Russian nesting doll.

(In case the term isn’t ringing a bell, Russian nesting dolls are those little wooden dolls that fit inside each other. You open one, and a smaller one is inside. Open that one, and an even smaller one is inside.)

“Stacking” brings those dolls to life, starring you as a tiny stacking doll named Charlie and tasking you with rescuing your family from an evil baron who has kidnapped and sentenced them to involuntary servitude.

By himself, Charlie is overmatched. But he has the ability to “stack” into any doll who is one degree larger than him and assume control of that character. That character, in turn, can stack into an even larger doll, and the process continues until you achieve control over the game’s largest (and, usually, most influential) dolls.

“Stacking” arranges its story by putting each imperiled family member in a different environment — a cruise ship, a zeppelin, a triple-decker train — and connecting everything with a similarly spacious hub level set inside a train station. Charlie is free to roam the environments as he likes, and you can inhabit any character, major or minor, who is roaming about.

Every character has a special maneuver he or she can perform — some of them crucial to the story (a widow seducing a guard into leaving his post), some useful (a woman with a spyglass can quickly discern which characters qualify as significant), some silly (dancing, playing paddleball, or performing various acts of mischief, which the game rewards through a suite of optional challenges).

The trick to saving Charlie’s family is to use the right dolls in the right ways to solve various cause-and-effect riddles, which generally involve getting around, influencing or assuming control of powerful dolls who won’t let Charlie get by them in his default form.

At its most linear, this isn’t terribly difficult, nor is “Stacking” particularly lengthly (a few hours, maybe) if you rush through the storyline and ignore the optional content.

But “Stacking” makes a terrific decision to give every challenge multiple solutions, and the players who will truly enjoy this game are the ones who come back to figure out every solution to every problem. Every challenge has an easy solution that’s made somewhat obvious by the presence of certain dolls in the vicinity, but the more obscure solutions require some inventiveness and often involve using dolls the game hasn’t labeled as significant. Other optional objectives, including the aforementioned mischief-making and a great challenge that involves reuniting other families by finding and stacking them together, give “Stacking” a lot more activity than initially meets the eye.

It also gives players an excuse to spend more time in the absolutely delightful world Double Fine has designed. “Stacking’s” dolls really look like living nesting dolls, from the expressions on their faces to the polished wooden sheen they give off to the wobbly, stop-motion-esque animation of their every movement. The rest of the world, which feels like a collection of early 20th century miniatures come alive, provides a beautiful complement. Even the cutscenes play along by mimicking a
silent film reel — piano soundtrack, written dialogue frames, film artifacts and all. The storytelling runs a bit heavy in “Stacking’s” early going, but its presentation is so novel that the excess is easily forgiven.

—–

Battleheart
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Mika Mobile
iTunes Store rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $3

As games that blend genres and take advantage of platform strengths go, it rarely gets better than this. On paper, “Battleheart” reads like a role-playing game: You assemble a party of characters with different strengths, upgrade those strengths by accruing experience and gold in battle, and use that gold to buy, sell and upgrade weapons, armor and other items with special attributes. But where most RPGs lean heavily on story, “Battleheart” all but skips it. Instead, the battles — which the game distributes across selectable levels almost like an arcade game — are the end as well as the means. That’s fine, too, because where most RPGs use a battle system that’s turn-based and menu-driven, “Battleheart” opts instead for a frantic, hands-on system that plays like a real-time strategy game on caffeine. Players control up to four characters at once, and commanding them is as simple as drawing a path for them, pointing them at specific enemies to attack, and occasionally tapping an icon to activate a spell. The simple controls — which nicely complement the game’s clean, ultra-cartoony look — prove a perfect fit once “Battleheart’s” introductory levels quickly give way to some seriously chaotic skirmishes. Things get crowded to a fault sometimes, especially on the smaller iPhone screen, but it’s an acceptable side effect of “Battleheart’s” refusal to compromise its thirst for chaos.


Games 2/15/11: Killzone 3, Body and Brain Connection, Hard Corps: Uprising

Killzone 3
For: Playstation 3
From: Guerrilla Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

“Killzone 3” cannot possibly surprise people like its 2009 predecessor did, so there’s no honest way to write about it that achieves the level of awe those lavishly complimentary “Killzone 2” reviews achieved.

But that isn’t to imply “KZ3” underwhelms at all. It tops “KZ2” in almost every respect, and while the story continues to fall short of its potential, the game’s handling of moment-to-moment action — seeking cover without changing perspective, a noticeable weight and impact to every action taken, a vicious depiction of warfare — still sets it apart from any other first-person shooter.

Additionally, while “KZ3’s” story doesn’t explore themes a truckload of other war games haven’t already mined, it provides the necessary means to visit more environments and give players access to more toys than “KZ2” did. As happened in the last game, you’ll get to witness and eventually harness some devastating, not-of-this-world weaponry designed by the opposing Helghan army. The battlegrounds are more diverse — planetary ruins here, a fascinatingly detailed Helghan laboratory there, a wildly colorful planet with predatory plant life in between. And in a nod to “Call of Duty’s” zest for variety, the game mixes up the objectives, complementing standard shootouts with a terrific stealth mission, some sniper duty and tours aboard gunships, ice saws and a vehicle that’s best left unspoiled.

But it bears repeating that a me-too storyline and me-too mission objectives don’t make “KZ3” a me-too shooter. The cover mechanic — a real mechanic for seeking cover, not a plain duck button — adds a tactical layer most first-person shooters lack. The minute dip in speed caused by the aforementioned weightiness provides a perfect complement: It’s subtle enough to never impede movement, but noticeable enough to engender deliberate actions instead of impulsive reactions.

The speed dip doesn’t come at the expense of intensity, either. To the contrary, “KZ3’s” shootouts are spectacularly lively — a combination of great level design, continuous foreground and background activity, and artificially intelligent enemies democratically and relentlessly flanking and descending on your allies as well as you.

The only other notable downer about the campaign? It supports two-player co-op, but only locally.

“KZ2” inventively broke convention from other multiplayer shooters with a shuffle-style mode that changed the match type — deathmatch, assassination, territory and so on — on the fly without ever pausing the action. Because no other shooter has successfully cribbed the formula, it remains fresh in “KZ3” (24 players, down from 32), which also includes a standard team deathmatch mode and a new Operations mode that further emphases the value of teamwork in these skirmishes.

The prioritization of teamwork is no trivial point. The core reward for multiplayer success remains in the form of individual perk and gear unlocks for each class, but you’ll garner more experience points from completing objectives than by simply killing enemies. The eight maps are intelligently designed to force teams to fight in hot zones while also completing objectives in hostile corners, and teams that diversity their classes and work together will rule these battlefields.

Though the controller suffices per usual, “KZ3” marks the first instance of a big-ticket game flashing full Playstation Move compatibility out of the box. The big news here is that there is no big news: The Move controller is as precise as advertised, and with a Navigation or regular controller in the other hand, no part of “KZ3’s” integral gameplay is sacrificed in exchange for playing this way. The tech was mostly validated already, but this seals it.

—–

Body and Brain Connection
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

When Nintendo scored a surprise hit with “Brain Age,” the torrent of imitation products was surprisingly furious and unsurprisingly mundane.

But the latest me-too product gets an arguable pass. For starters, it stars and features the consultation of Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, who also starred in and consulted on development of the Nintendo games that started this whole phenomenon.

More importantly, it goes places even “Age” couldn’t go by utilizing the Kinect and replacing styli and buttons with arms and legs.

Structurally and conceptually, “Connection” borrows liberally from “Age.” It features 20 exercises across five categories (math, reflex, logic, memory, physical), and each exercise has its own scoring table, progress chart and series of unlockable difficulty levels.

Similarly, while you can play exercises whenever and at whatever pace you please, the real meat of “Connection” is the daily test, which chooses three exercises for you, grades you on your aptitude in those tests, and distills your performance into an age. The lower your mental and physical age, the better.

“Connection” allows you to take this test only once per day, but that’s the point: You visit daily, take the test, chart your progress, perhaps do some additional exercises for fun or practice, and you’re done in 15 minutes or so. You likely won’t experience any cathartic awakening in terms of brainpower, nor will the light physical demands turn you into an adonis. But it certainly can’t hurt, and “Connection,” like “Age,” has a way of growing on you if you enjoy the exercises and the sense of accomplishment that comes from excelling at them and whittling that age down.

“Connection’s” exercises are simple, but they’re also challenging fun, and despite the presence of categories, every exercise features some mixture of mental and physical taxation. One test has you simultaneously controlling two separate Namco characters with both hands to help them evade “Pac-Man” ghosts. Another tasks you with forming highways with your arms and safely guiding vehicles to their color-coded destination. A low-concept test simply has you popping numbered balloons from the lowest number to the highest, which is pretty easy until negative numbers show up to mess with your perception.

For the most part — at least while playing alone — the Kinect controls work as they should, though you’ll inevitably pop the wrong balloon or touch the wrong button by accident simply because your hand falls in the way. The menu navigation is pretty unwieldy, but it’s tamable with practice, and better for these problems to surface outside the game than during it.

Less sterling is “Connection’s” multiplayer component, which allows up to four players to compete locally for the best score in each exercise. As with most Kinect games at present, “Connection” sometimes loses track of who’s who when a new player jumps in for a turn, and it struggles further during exercises that allow two players to play at once. Things work more than they don’t, and there’s fun to be had this way if you take it for the slightly chaotic experience it has the potential to be.

But it’s harder to accept problems with local multiplayer when “Connection,” like too many Kinect games, completely omits online multiplayer over Xbox Live. You can’t even compare exercise scores online. It’s blasphemy for a non-Kinect Xbox 360 game to release multiplayer that’s local only, and Kinect games should aspire to meet the same standard.

—–

Hard Corps: Uprising
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Arc System Works/Konami
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, use of tobacco, violence)
Price: $15

You may live to see the end of “Hard Corps: Uprising’s” eighth and final level, but it may take you a lot longer than you expect. And for a game that, appearances aside, is a direct heir to the “Contra” throne, there’s no higher compliment. “Uprising” comes courtesy of a developer that’s primarily known for its lavishly-animated 2D fighting games, and its influence results in a visual direction — meticulously animated, anime-style characters set in front of hand-painted backdrops — that’s a jarring but wildly enjoyable step in a new direction for “Contra.” In terms of gameplay, though, “Uprising” is classic “Contra.” Enemies attack in droves, each stage has multiple boss encounters, and seemingly impossible firefights become merely punishingly difficult once you decipher each enemy’s attack pattern. At its most basic, “Uprising” is unforgiving, and beating the game’s arcade mode — three lives, five continues — will be impossible for many. Fortunately, the Rising mode plays exactly the same but allows players to trade in points they score for some seriously useful unlockables — extra lives, extra health, better default weapons and more — that, once purchased, remain unlocked. Keep playing and scoring, and eventually you might unlock enough assists to see level eight. Or maybe just level two. (If all else fails, there’s two-player local/online co-op.) It isn’t easy, but it’s ridiculously fun, and if the satisfaction of conquering a hard-fought level isn’t enough, seeing what bizarre setting and enemies waits on deck most certainly is.


Games 2/1/11: Dead Space Extraction, Breach, Fluidity

Dead Space Extraction
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Visceral Games/Eurocom/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Price: $15 standalone, free with purchase of Playstation 3 version of “Dead Space 2”

Few games deserve a second chance as much as “Dead Space Extraction,” which sold miserably on the Wii despite continuing one of the generation’s best new fictions and outclassing just about every on-rails shooter that ever came before it.

Though it also works (and with surprisingly decent results) with a regular Playstation 3 controller, “Extraction’s” chemistry with the Wii’s remote makes it a perfect fit for the Playstation Move controller as well, and its flawless (and, on some levels, enhanced) migration immediately positions it as perhaps the best Move-enabled game out there until “Killzone 3” arrives later this month.

It also gives PS3 owners a chance to experience a slice of “Dead Space” lore that easily earns its place in the franchise canon. In contrast to the two mainline “Space” games, “Extraction” almost always surrounds you with a crew and even drops you into multiple characters’ shoes when the story — which begins before and runs somewhat parallel to the events of the first “Space” while answering a bunch of questions raised by that game — dictates.

“Extraction” also departs from franchise norms by presenting everything through a spectacularly energetic first-person presentation.

That, along with the decision to go on-rails, was a byproduct of “Extraction’s” understanding of the Wii remote’s control limitations. But it ceases to feel like a concession once it becomes clear how little it loses and how much it adds. The Necromorphs from “Space” return, and nothing about the encounters — from their attack intelligence to the spot-damage approach needed to neutralize them — feels dumbed down or scripted just because the camerawork is out of your hands.

The series’ inventive weaponry also returns, alternate fire modes and all, and some of the guns (the disc ripper in particular) are more fun to use in “Extraction” because of the added immersion the motion controls provide. Kinetic and stasis powers lay freely at your disposal, and opportunities to use them are rarely more contrived here than they are in the other “Space” games. The only real puzzle contrivance is an occasional hacking mini-game, but even that’s exhilarating when the mechanisms grow more complex and you have to hack them and fight off encroaching Necromorphs at the exact same time.

About the only place “Extraction” feels compromised is in the upgrades department. Instead of allowing you to upgrade your character and weaponry according to your combat preferences, the game assigns upgrades automatically based on mission scores and the items you pick up (if you’re quick enough) with your kinetic beam while the action rages on. The reflex test is terrific fun in its own right, and it’s a very satisfying trade-off given the style of the game, but the lost flexibility merits mentioning all the same.

“Extraction’s” main campaign is lengthy enough to easily justify the $15 price tag, and it tops that off with local co-op support and a challenge mode that strips the story missions down to points-based arcade levels. The PS3 version receives enhancements via trophy support and graphics that look nice in HD, though it lacks any kind of online functionality.

The best way to get the game is as a free bonus with initial printings of “Dead Space 2” for PS3, but schemers beware: You can’t play that version of “Extraction” without the “DS2” disc, so attempts to get “Extraction” for keeps without buying it or buying “DS2” will be thwarted.

—–

Breach
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Atomic Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, violence)
Price: $15

“Breach” had no choice but to be pretty special — or at least different — if it was going to successfully command $15 from the same military shooter crowd that’s already invested in “Call of Duty,” “Battlefield,” “Medal of Honor” and the rest of a rapidly crowding sub-genre.

Unfortunately, “special” is just about the last word that describes this one, because while “Breach” strives to hang with its big-budget competition, it doesn’t do anything to meaningfully set itself apart from it.

The lack of originality is apparent almost instantly. “Breach” is a multiplayer-only first-person modern warfare shooter, but the lack of a single-player storyline doesn’t excuse the game’s complete disinterest in divulging anything about why these two armies are fighting or who they even are. Those details aren’t paramount, but they also aren’t meaningless, and it’s weird to engage in a war that’s completely free of context.

Unfortunately, the visual presentation, while perfectly technically competent for a $15 downloadable game, offers few clues for those who wish to guess. “Breach’s” character models lack any significant distinction, almost to the point where soldiers from one army are interchangeable with their enemies. The five maps are similarly plain: There’s a silo that’s probably important, and the game’s best map takes place amid snow-capped mountains, but mostly, you might as well be fighting anywhere in the world.

It’s unfortunate, because while “Breach” has some fundamental hangups as well, it functions competently enough that, if it took players to a fresh war or corner of the world, it’d be easy enough to recommend.

The essentials are, imperfections aside, there. “Breach” offers four playable classes — rifleman, gunner, small-arms support and sniper — with a fifth, reconnaissance, that unlocks with experience. Each class has its own lengthly roster of weapons, add-ons and perks for players to unlock after accumulating experience points, so there’s no shortage of replay value if unlocking everything is of interest to you.

Spotty online performance leads to some issues with enemy players skipping around maps or magically popping into view, but only very infrequently, and the action mostly functions as expected. The guns feel powerful, the control satisfactorily tight. The ability to take cover (switching the perspective from first- to third-person) also is handy, though the run-and-gun leanings of enemy players will inevitably limit its utility.

“Breach’s” map design is hit-and-miss — some maps feel too corridor-laden and too often turn players into easy targets for snipers — but the game’s penchant for destructible environments offers some nice options for rearranging the furniture. Of all the ways to put down an enemy, none beats blowing a hole into the ground on which they’re standing and watching them tumble into oblivion.

In terms of modes, “Breach” again suffices. Matches support up to 16 players, and the mode offerings — territory, team deathmatch, single-life deathmatch, retrieval and a convoy mode that tasks one team with protecting the convoy while the other attacks it — run the gamut.

When the net code cooperates, getting into a game — either quickly or by browsing the available match types — works effortlessly as well. Unfortunately, while demo downloaders flood the servers, connection errors are frequent. The connection issues should soon pass if the game’s pre-release performance is any indication, though, and even at the height of the problem, attempts to get into a game eventually
paid off.

—–

Fluidity
For: Wii (via Wii Shop Channel)
From: Curve Studios/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $12

Attractive lower price aside, it’s unfortunate that Nintendo took the most unique Wii game it’s published in nearly a year and effectively hid it where most Wii owners are bound never to find it. “Fluidity’s” concept is simple: You star as a small body of water tasked with purging a magical book of an ink-fueled infection. The control scheme — tilt the Wii remote to tilt the levels (which resemble pages from a book) and dictate the flow of water — is similarly straightforward. But “Fluidity’s” handling of that water is at once predictable and delightfully frantic: Like a real body of water, it’s fragile, dynamic and extremely prone to splitting into smaller bodies and droplets that, if left too small for too long, will evaporate. As you might guess, losing all the water means losing a life. But keeping the water together is more than a survival tactic, thanks to the game’s wonderful level and puzzle design. “Fluidity” doesn’t resemble a Super Mario or Kirby game in any visual respect, but it displays the same level of invention, relentlessly creating new obstacles, gadgets and scenarios to put that straightforward premise, control scheme and physics to continuous brilliant use. Though things get a little excessively difficult toward the end, the game mostly toes a perfect line in terms of difficulty: The main challenges are tricky but fair, while a ton of optional challenges are perfectly skippable but both mentally and physically gratifying to complete at your own pace.