Games 8/17/10: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Quake Live

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
Coming soon for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, cartoon violence, language, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $10

Were “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” simply an awesome stab at capitalizing on a comic book and movie that itself lovingly rides the wave of 1980s video gaming nostalgia, it’d be a perfectly easy game to recommend.

But “Pilgrim” humbles simple nostalgia by taking those old games down avenues that either weren’t imagined or weren’t technologically possible back in their day. And it even does contemporary gaming a few better with a level of stylish abandon few games have the appetite to match.

This isn’t to suggest “Pilgrim” reinvents what it fundamentally is — a sidescrolling beat-em-up in the vein of “Double Dragon,” and especially “River City Ransom” — or that those who couldn’t get into those games 20 years ago will somehow get into this now. The objective remains the same, and while “Pilgrim” uses slightly more of the controller than its forebears could, it inevitably and regularly devolves into pounding the same couple of buttons when things get hairy.

But for those who still love the mindless reactionary action this genre provides, the contributions “Pilgrim” makes are wonderful. The game regularly crowds any given screen with enemies — as in up to a dozen or more — without slowing down even a trickle, and it’s just as generous with the variety and amount of items in the environment that players (and enemies) can use in lieu of fists and feet. A weird but enjoyably generous physics system allows quick-thinking players to use these objects in myriad creative ways — throwing a ball at an enemy, for instance, and then kicking the ball at another enemy after it bounces off the first guy’s face.

“Pilgrim’s” fighting controls are versatile and plenty responsive enough to offset the imposing imbalance of manpower, and a persistent leveling system adds new moves whenever players level up one of the game’s five playable characters. “Pilgrim” measures player and enemy attributes with a points system normally reserved for role-playing games, and acquired attributes carry over to new games, tempting completists to replay the game multiple times to fully max each character out. In a nice concession, acquired experience carries over even when players lose all lives and have to otherwise restart a level. Like its influences, “Pilgrim” is a tough game even on its default setting, but it’s savvy enough to give players some sense of progress even when all else fails.

While “Pilgrim” truly succeeds on the strength of its gameplay, it likely will be best remembered for its audiovisual style, which combines garishly pixelated graphics and high-definition polish to marvelous effect and slaps on a magnificent chiptunes soundtrack that would be iconic today if it had originally debuted 20 years ago. Thematically, “Pilgrim’s” levels run the gamut — a rock concert here, a dojo there — and it mines those themes while piling on numerous callbacks to gaming’s past for a presentation that is nothing short of blissful.

While “Pilgrim” supports four-player local co-op to frantically fun effect, the only place the game feels dated in all the wrong ways is in its failure to deliver an online equivalent. The sheer insanity of the action is miles more fun with three friends in the same room, but for those who lack that option, the omission of any kind of conciliatory prize is a major blemish in what otherwise is a work of art.

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Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network, Windows PC
From: Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, violence)
Price: $15

Given the lack of “Tomb Raider” in the name, to say nothing of the budget price and downloadable state of the game, one might mistakenly assume “Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light” is a lark for player and creator alike while everybody waits for the next proper “Raider” game to appear and get Lara back to doing what she does best.

But that isn’t necessarily so — and actually, it may be those who don’t normally take to “Raider” who might enjoy “Light” most of all.

Though “Light’s” storyline and environments very obviously exist in “Raider’s” universe, the actual game generally eschews the epic environmental platforming challenges that are the series’ typical centerpiece. Instead, “Light” takes place from an overheard isometric perspective, and like “Diablo” and other games that share that viewpoint, its primary ingredient is combat.

Lara has never excelled at combat from close range, but from high above, she’s a natural. “Light’s” controls — left stick to move, right stick to aim, trigger to fire — are a natural convergence of twin-stick and traditional third-person shooters, and outside of providing players a nice variety of weapons to discover and use, the game doesn’t muck with time-tested conventions. In a nice touch, “Light” scores players based on their ability to dispatch enemies and discover hidden treasure, and each level has optional score challenges on top of other bonus objectives that, upon completion, reward players with special weapons and upgrades.

The combat and scoring systems make no bones about “Light” being a more arcadey experience than traditional “Raider” games, so it’s all the more pleasantly surprising when it becomes apparent just how much the game still offers to those with a penchant for exploration. Platforming challenges are significantly less ambitious than in the proper games, but they’re here, and “Light’s” control scheme allows Lara to jump, climb, and swing around environments and puzzles that provide a satisfying challenge without overshadowing the combat.

Additionally, while “Light” doesn’t stop players from beelining through the primary objectives, the slew of optional challenges that lie off the beaten path — including self-contained challenge rooms that dangle additional rewards at the end of the puzzle — also provide many of the game’s most gratifying and fun challenges.

As the story explains, “Light” supports two-player co-op throughout the campaign, and a crop of bonus speed-run challenges are clearly designed with two players in mind. At the same time, dueling scores encourage players to get the kills and gems and one-up each other. “Light’s” execution of co-op play is as no-nonsense and functional as one expects it to be, and the loose treatment lets players be as ancillary or antagonizing as they wish.

Unfortunately, until late September, it’s also local only. Crystal Dynamics plans to patch online co-op into the Xbox Live version and include it out of the gate when “Light” comes to Windows and Playstation 3, and the patch will naturally be free. Still, if you’re downloading “Light” specifically for the online co-op experience, you still have six weeks of waiting to do.

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Quake Live
For: Various Web browsers (Windows PC/Macintosh/Linux)
From: id Software/Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: Free for basic account, $24/year for premium account, $48/year for pro account

Stunning though today’s games are, there may be no better demonstration of gaming’s rapid technological growth than the ability to open up a browser window and play something that brought computers to their knees barely 10 years ago. But that’s what “Quake Live” does: It takes the underpinnings of “Quake III: Arena,” builds a persistent community and modern interface around it, and, at its base level, gives the thing away to anybody willing to set up an account and download the plug-in needed to make it run. The game looks predictably dated, but it hardly matters given how smoothly and quickly it runs, and the essence that drove “Arena” in 1999 — fast, trigger-happy action and lots of weapons, maps and customizable modes to keep players engaged — still burns bright today. “Live’s” out-of-game particulars all take place via a Web portal that makes it easy to manage friends, build clans, customize characters and keep track of leaderboards, achievements, rewards and character experience. Perhaps most pleasantly surprising, though, is a suite of tutorials and practice arenas that allow nervous newbies to practice against A.I. opponents, making “Live” as inviting to try out as it is easy to set up. “Live’s” release from beta status keeps it free to play on its base level, but for those who plan on digging in, the premium (20 additional maps, one extra mode, additional awards and clan/stat-tracking support) and pro (self-hosted server support, limited premium content sharing with friends, yet more additional awards and clan/stat-tracking support) subscription plans are available as well.


Games 7/27/10: Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, The Cages: Pro Style Batting Practice, DeathSpank

Sin and Punishment: Star Successor
For: Wii
From: Treasure/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence)

The genius of “Sin and Punishment: Star Successor” is not simply how skillfully it creates order out of what initially looks like sheer insane nonsense, but how easy it continually makes that skill look during the five or so hours it takes to experience it for the first time.

Dismissively, “Successor” can be classified as an on-rails shooter, which has become a term synonymous for all the Wii lacks in terms of traditional control schemes. The tag technically applies, because outside of when it pauses to swarm players with enemies or a boss fight, “Successor” is constantly in some form of forward motion, and it’s the duty of players to clear enemies away and keep up with it. Think of “Successor” as an old-fashioned space shooter that moves forward in three dimensions instead of sideways in two, and you can start to picture what’s going on here.

Like most on-rails shooters on the Wii, “Successor” also employs a cursor-based control scheme for shooting purposes. Aim the Wii remote around the screen to pick targets, press B to fire. No surprises there.

But “Successor” enhances these core elements by mixing in more extensive character control than the genre traditionally allows. Isa Jo and Achi, the game’s playable protagonists, can freely run and jump on the ground as well as hover to any corner of the screen, and outside of the on-rails forward and backward movement, “Successor” leaves all character movements in players’ hands.

Even the cursor controls, which complement the often frantic pace by incorporating a perfect dose of aiming assistance that’s effective but so subtle as to potentially go unnoticed, puts most similar control schemes to surprising shame. (An optional control scheme, supporting both the Classic and Gamecube controllers, allows players to go all the way traditional and control the targeting with the right stick.)

All that freedom is crucial, because “Successor” inspires more thrills from mastering and avoiding enemy attack patterns than from putting on a good offensive show. Like a great sidescrolling shooter, “Successor” swarms players with such a high variety of frantic enemy attacks that at first, it looks nothing short of (a) completely random and (b) impossible to circumvent. But everything in the game has a pattern, and players who put in the time to figure “Successor” out will gradually start to see it in a completely different (and far more appreciative) light once those patterns start to emerge.

The quest to master the insane variety of patterns “Successor” devises gives the game considerably more value than initial impressions might imply. The game has a story, and it’s sufficient if you absolutely need some narrative purpose, but seeing how it ends is nowhere near as interesting as playing and replaying stretches of the game to push your high scores up the online leaderboards.

“Successor” scores players like a classic arcade shooter, rewarding the ability to stay alive while also dangling a score multiplier that’s continually in flux and dependent on players’ ability to shoot quickly and just a little recklessly. The system lends itself perfectly to score chasers and perfectionists, and “Successor’s” complete understanding of that art — along with hours of great game design to back it up — makes this a must-play for anyone who identifies with either demographic.

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The Cages: Pro Style Batting Practice
For: Wii
From: Alpha Unit/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone

At no point does this review know whether “The Cages: Pro Style Batting Practice” is a smart option for would-be baseball stars who, for all baseball science can tell us, might screw up their swing technique by swinging a Wii remote at a television instead of a real baseball bat at a real baseball. Considering the discrepancies in bat weight, among other obvious factors, it’s entirely likely this is more harmful than helpful for serious baseball players.

But taken simply as a video game simulation of a trip to the batting cages — and taking into account the limitations of the Wii even with the MotionPlus attachment in tow — “Cages” does a surprisingly good job at recreating this particular aspect of baseball practice.

With that said, first things first: Though “Cages” is playable without the MotionPlus attachment, the loss of precision that little attachment provides makes this a useless practice tool at best and completely unplayable at worst. If you’re at all serious about enjoying “Cages,” owning or purchasing a MotionPlus attachment should be viewed as mandatory in order for anything that follows to apply to your experience.

“Cages'” primary interface is as spartan as you might imagine: There’s a baseball field, a pitching machine, your bat (which, in the recommended first-person view, you barely even see) and very little else. The machine throws pitches, and players swing the Wii remote like a bat to try and hit the ball.

What makes it work, in addition to a refreshingly unforgiving demand on swing precision, are the options and interface touches the game lays atop the threadbare gameplay. Every pitch is followed by a skippable but very useful swing analyzer that shows players how early, late, high, low, inside or outside their swings are in relation to the ball’s trajectory. Players also can customize and save presets for the pitching machine, selecting what pitches it can throw and the range of speeds at which it can throw them. A stat-tracking feature logs your batting average and other numbers, and a calorie counter provides a morale boost for those days when your swing completely fails you.

“Cages” pads its value with a couple competitive multiplayer modes (one for two players, another for four), but nothing in the game’s feature set will satisfy players looking for anything resembling a game of organized baseball. The game, along its budget price tag, make no bones about its acute focus, and buyers who expect more from it will do so at their own peril.

What it does though — and taking into account the disclaimers from paragraphs one and three above — it does rather satisfactorily. By no stretch of any imagination is “Cages” a better experience than hitting real baseballs with a real bat, and its value as a training tool is pretty dubious. But for those who go to the cages purely for enjoyment’s sake but wouldn’t mind an alternative in a pinch when the time or means isn’t there, this isn’t a bad investment to make.

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DeathSpank
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network and Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Hothead Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, cartoon violence, crude humor, mild language, mild sexual themes)
Price: $15

Considering the enduring popularity of the two things — “Diablo”-style dungeon crawling and comedy — “DeathSpank” attempts to merge as one, it’s rather amazing it’s taken this long for the two to come together as naturally as they have here. “DeathSpank” starts off a little slow, and there are a handful of things it does adequately but never expertly. The sensation of combat “Diablo” absolutely nails never feels quite so satisfying here, and between the simplicity of the quest designs and the modest ambitions of the game’s comedic writing and voice acting, this likely will be neither the best-playing dungeon crawler nor the funniest game you play this year. Fortunately, what “DeathSpank” doesn’t do amazingly well, it does more
than well enough — so much so that the experience actually improves rather than degrades once the novelty of comedic dungeon crawling wears off. The quests, while not terribly ambitious in terms of variety or design, are at least numerous, as is the bounty of armor, weapons and items waiting to be discovered. The depth of the combat improves with the ability to cast new spells and even combine special attacks. And the world’s fleeting resemblance to an illustrated pop-up book (without the actual pop-up animation) works in tandem with the amusing overall tone to create a universe that, imperfections or not, is a whole lot of fun to explore.


Games 6/15/10: Green Day: Rock Band, Joe Danger

Green Day: Rock Band
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Harmonix/MTV Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (drug reference, lyrics, mild blood)

Some would argue that “Rock Band’s” migration from honoring The Beatles last fall to honoring Green Day now is akin to Ken Burns following up his Civil War documentary with a 15-hour look at Wrestlemania. But that, like nearly everything else with regard to music, is entirely subjective.

Still, in case it somehow needs to be said, “Green Day: Rock Band” isn’t for anyone who doesn’t appreciate the musical stylings of Green Day enough to play the band’s songs ad nauseam. Just as “Beatles: Rock Band” featured nothing but The Beatles, this package contains nothing but Green Day songs, and while players can migrate the catalog into “Rock Band 2” (and eventually “Rock Band 3”) this time, this game itself allows nary a note from any other band. So if you don’t like Green Day, you know what not to do here.

What is a little cloudy is what to do if you do like the band.

In every expected way, “GD:RB” is as solid as everything that preceded it in the “Rock Band” line. It’s compatible with all the virtual instruments you already own. The note charts are terrific on both ends of the difficulty spectrum, making it easy for players of all disciplines to participate. The band’s real-life likenesses transform into in-game caricatures to terrific effect, and the recordings the game uses are top shelf as always. Developer Harmonix caters to solo players with a healthy career mode but offers just as much to those who want to play together online or in the same room. Support for three-singer and six-member bands, introduced in “Beatles,” returns here.

But “GD:RB” has the same annoying problem “Beatles” had: Its song count, at 47 deep, is only slightly more than half as large as what a mainline “Rock Band” release gets for the same $60 price.

The thin “Beatles” roster was accepted as a byproduct of the labyrinthine procedures needed to digitize The Beatles’ well-guarded catalog in the first place, and the game countered it by at least sampling songs from the entirety of the band’s career and complementing that with memorable venues and set pieces from each turning point in the timeline.

“GD:RB,” by contrast, ignores the first seven years of the band’s existence and focuses almost entirely on 1994’s “Dookie,” 2004’s “American Idiot” and 2009’s “21st Century Breakdown.” The three albums that released between “Dookie” and “Idiot” receive only eight songs’ worth of representation, while the band’s first two albums may as well not exist. The availability of only three venues feels similarly lacking, especially when the one venue even non-Green Day fans recognize — the mud-slathered Woodstock ’94 show — isn’t one of them.

Harmonix has stated it has no plans to squeeze fans for additional money by releasing more songs as downloadable content, so it doesn’t really matter whether the incomplete timeline is a result of label politics, licensing issues, band preferences or something else. What you see is what you’re getting, so budget accordingly: You know what “GD:RB” can do, you know what it can’t do, and you’ll have to decide if that adds up to $60 well spent until “Rock Band 3” touches down this fall.

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Joe Danger
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Hello Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
Price: $15

Last year’s “Trials HD” took “Excitebike’s” time-tested brand of 2D motorbiking and modernized it with physics, stunts and lots of clever new modes. The only problem? After a few reasonably challenging batches of tracks, it grew oppressively hard, obeying the harsh laws of physics to a spirit-crushing degree. That’s a problem “Joe Danger,” which adopts the same perspective and general controls, does not have. Like “Trials,” “Danger” prefers its tracks be stunt playgrounds instead of straightforward motorbike races. But “Danger” ventures a step further by playing almost like a platformer, challenging players to maneuver obstacles, rack up stunt scores and complete the same track different ways to fulfill completely disparate objectives. That adds up to a surprisingly filling single-player mode, and because “Danger” is equipped with a terrifically responsive control scheme that respects but doesn’t worship physics, it’s well-equipped to challenge players different ways without ever undermining its own fun. The vibrant, cartoony exterior perfectly complements the increasingly crazy tracks, a threadbare story does just enough to make Joe a thoroughly likable character, and players who want more can create their own tracks and trade them with other players whose PSN IDs they know. About the only thing that doesn’t impress is “Danger’s” multiplayer (local only, two players), which is limited to straightforward races. But the game’s persistent leaderboard support provides some consolation by letting players constantly challenge their PSN friends’ highest stunt scores on every track.


Games 6/8/10: Blur, Backbreaker, Planet Minigolf

Blur
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Bizarre Creations/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (lyrics, mild language)

Bizarre Creations has attempted to make it perfectly clear that while “Blur” uses vehicle and track designs typically reserved for the likes of “Burnout” and “Need for Speed,” the game it’s really targeting is “Mario Kart.”

Looks and a few other particulars aside, the comparison isn’t a stretch — for reasons good and bad.

While “Blur” doesn’t completely nullify the value of able and dangerous driving — the cars handle almost identically to those in Bizarre’s more serious “Project Gotham” racing games — the real key to victory comes from sabotaging the opposition with power-ups scattered around the track. The use of real-world graphics trickles down slightly to these power-ups, but while they don’t look as fantastical as “Kart’s” mushrooms and turtle shells, their general behavior certainly calls that game to mind. “Blur,” to its credit, introduces some nice improvements to the system by mixing in defensive items, including a shield, and by letting players go after the items they specifically want instead of picking up unmarked boxes and hoping what they want is inside.

The heavy premium on power-ups in what otherwise feels like another “Project Gotham” game certainly makes for a novel change of pace, but the degree to which “Blur” deemphasizes the importance of driving well is kind of disappointing. Ramming and sideswiping cars is practically worthless, and while there are occasional rewards for agile driving, most of the advancement through the game comes from pelting other drivers with items and zipping past them while they recover. Some of “Blur’s” constricting track designs practically mandate dull, safe driving, especially early on when the only vehicles available to drive are Class D cars that handle like tugboats.

Frustration with these and other factors, including some unfortunate difficulty imbalances (the game’s too easy on the easy setting, but gets ruthlessly, cheaply difficult on normal difficulty and beyond) and a long wait before the cars that are really fun to drive become available, makes “Blur’s” single-player component something not everyone will love. Bizarre has designed a inventive career mode that functions like a role-playing game and allows players some measure of forward progress toward unlocking better cars even when they finish dead last in an event. But while that setup gives the mode some serious longevity, it also feels designed to make players grind away by losing the same events repeatedly until they have the experience and cars necessary to win it. That this can lead to frustrating stagnation is both obvious and an understatement.

Fortunately, “Blur” has a similar system in place for online multiplayer (20 players), and it carries all the benefits of the single-player mode without the aggravations the A.I. brings to that table. The game matches players against others in their experience class, and because the playing field is completely level and factors beyond player control have no say on the outcome of the race, it’s a significantly better realization of what Bizarre envisioned when it first conceived this idea. Kart racing has always been a genre that shines brightest in multiplayer, and “Blur” gets major points for recognizing that and giving that crowd just as much to strive for as those driving solo.

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Backbreaker
For: Playstation 3 and xbox 360
From: NaturalMotion Games/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The problem with “Backbreaker” — and there probably couldn’t be a worse problem for a football game to have than this — is that its diversionary modes are better than its presentation of a complete game of football.

The promise of “Backbreaker” — which champions a game of football based around a dramatically more intense physics engine than what “Madden” uses — is everywhere in the optional but recommended tutorial portion. The mode introduces the controls and physics via 25 lessons, covering everything from open-field tackling to the art of the interception, and it doubles as a validation of the concepts NaturalMotion has introduced to make this a step in a new direction for football games.

“Backbreaker” treats the two control sticks as extensions of a player’s body — the left stick controls the feet per usual, the right stick good for juking, hitting, passing, swimming around blocks and so on — and it presents the action from closely behind whichever player you’re controlling instead of from fixed angles a la “Madden.” You can switch between players at will, but “Backbreaker” encourages picking a player during the play-calling screen and sticking to him throughout the play. The camera unwieldiness that happens when switching mid-play certainly validates that approach.

The zoomed-in camera angles work well during the tutorials, which operate within controlled parameters. They also work in the terrific Tackle Alley mini-game, which finds players running through a gauntlet of would-be tacklers and racking up arcadey scores by dodging defenders and reaching the end zone.

But “Backbreaker” tumbles hard when placed in real, 11-on-11 game situations. The camera zooms too far in for players to have any field presence in unscripted situations, and while we get a nice look at the cool tackling physics, it’s too difficult to find open lanes while running, check multiple receivers while passing, or do just about anything near the line on either side of the ball. It’s sometimes preferable to just break the system: Lining a defensive end on the opposite side of the play makes it far easier to sack, for instance, while running the ball east and then north makes for much larger gains than following the block.

Which leads to the other problem: “Backbreaker’s” A.I. is both too easy to exploit and excessively prone to undermining the fun. Quarterbacks randomly throw directly to defensive backs nowhere near the route, and your teammates go on spurts of committing the same penalty multiple times. Turnovers are way too commonplace, and the afflictions affect human and A.I. teams alike on all difficulty settings.

“Backbreaker’s” dead-simple playbook isn’t bad news for players overwhelmed by the sea of formations and plays in “Madden,” and the absence of the NFL license doesn’t necessarily sting thanks to a customization tool that lets players extensively edit the name, look and roster of 32 teams. (Players can’t share created teams online, but even if they could, the lawyers that be likely wouldn’t allow the sharing of user-created NFL teams anyway.)

But the features and arguably refreshing simplicity are for naught until “Backbreaker” figures out how to get the main course right. First effort or not, too much goes wrong here to recommend this, novelty factor or not, as a serious alternative to “Madden’s” brand of football.

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Planet Minigolf
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $10

The good thing about “Planet Minigolf” is that its biggest problem is potentially treatable with a patch. The bad thing, unfortunately, is that if that never happens, that problem — control — rates pretty high on the list of issues not to have. On every other front, “Minigolf” is an extraordinary package for $10. The 16 nine-hole courses, which disperse over four different environmental theme
s, look great and offer a healthy mix of surprises and homages to classic minigolf traps, and a surprisingly rich course editor allows players to create their own courses and share them online. There’s a single-player campaign as well as online/local multiplayer (up to six players), and players can customize their character’s look for both components. “Minigolf” even supports three-on-three team play, and the truly patriotic can represent their country and contribute their scores to an inspired multinational leaderboard. So it’s too bad about those controls: The default analog stick scheme is way too touchy to feel natural, and the button-centric alternate controls (in addition to being entirely too easy to miss completely in the menus) suffer the same problem to a smaller degree. Practice makes that touchiness easier to anticipate, and the present settings are nowhere near unreasonable enough to completely derail the experience. But “Minigolf” will need some developer fine-tuning before it feels as effortlessly intuitive as the PS3’s best traditional golf games presently do.