Games 3/27/12: Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, Isle of Tune

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $60

From Kinect support to the chance to reenact Tiger Woods’ upbringing, “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13” boasts its share of new features for the back of the box.

But the most paramount addition by far to “TW13” is a new swing mechanic that isn’t even a new way to swing so much as a dramatically better way to understand how your swing works.

The act of swinging hasn’t fundamentally changed: You still pull back on the left stick for the backswing and push forward to follow through.

But “TW13” finally properly relays the importance of maintaining a steady tempo by making it effortless to gauge it. An inconspicuous meter provides an overlay for your swing’s ideal span while that swing is in process, and a swing feedback system uses layman’s terms and dead-simple visuals to grade the speed, power and accuracy of your backswing and followthrough. Study them, and eventually the tempo just comes naturally — something that might happen with or without this interface, but never so knowingly and with this much satisfaction.

“TW13” offers a comparable interface upgrade for planning shots as well. Along with the usual tricks — zooming in to see your lie, asking your caddie for help — you can adjust your stance on two different levels and put precise-to-the-degree spin on the ball.

Per usual, numerous difficulty tuners allow novices and pros to respectively automate the planning process or do completely away with assists. But the presence of these new interfaces is a godsend for the rest of us who want to understand this stuff and do it ourselves. The interfaces are subtle, but they do the job perfectly, and their inclusion alone marks the biggest fundamental step forward this series has taken in years.

The monumental upgrade for “TW13’s” traditional controls stands at awkward odds with the series’ new Kinect control scheme, which is beholden to that tech’s minuscule appetite for precision.

To golf with Kinect, you actually face the screen instead of golf toward it (as you would with the Wii or Playstation Move remotes). That’s necessary for the Kinect to see your swing motion’s span, but it also means “TW13” can’t register the minutiae of a swing’s accuracy nearly as sharply as traditional controls can.

Other quirks abound. Planning a shot with motion alone is laborious, the menus are too touchy, and while some of the gestures (crouching to look at the ball, shading your eyes to zoom) are amusing, the Kinect’s occasional tendency to completely ignore a swing is not. The controls are fun for giggles and local multiplayer, but they hold no candle to the traditional scheme if you’re playing to excel.

(“TW13’s” Move support, now in its third year, has a greater capacity for grading your swing honestly, but it, too, is best relegated for casual play.)

Alongside returning features (career, four-player online/offline multiplayer, global online tournaments), “TW13’s” most novel new feature is the Tiger Legacy Challenge, wherein you relive Tiger’s career highlights — and not just as a pro. “TW13” adds the Woods family yard to its roster of venues, and you get to play out Tiger’s childhood accomplishments as well as his amateur and professional feats.

For social players, the Online Country Club feature is likely more intriguing. You can join other clubs while managing your own, which entails inviting members, poring over petitions for rule changes, and creating member tournaments. You also can challenge other clubs on the course (and reap some nice in-game rewards if you emerge victorious).

Elsewhere, a Skills Challenge feature introduces a dynamic (and game-wide) in-game achievements system. The persistent in-game rewards system lets you activate single-round perks that slightly enhance a facet of your game, and you can even use rewards to play a downloadable course for free. Master a downloadable course, and it becomes yours to own for free. (You can, of course, buy them — and any other unlockable reward — immediately for real money.)


Isle of Tune
For: iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch (universal app)
From: Happylander Ltd.
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1

The iOS App Store isn’t exactly hurting for apps that allow even the most hopeless wannabe musician to compose something tuneful. But you’d be hard-pressed to find one that does it quite like “Isle of Tune,” which combines music composition and city building into one hypnotically fun trip. “Tune’s” interface is straight out of “SimCity’s” playbook: Using the design palette, you can lay out roads and place decorative pieces (houses, signs, streetlights, bridges, trees and plants) in whatever arrangement you like. But only after placing up to eight cars on those roads and pressing the Play button does “Tune” truly come to life. As the cars drive by each piece you place alongside the road, the piece plays a note from the instrument it represents. And because each piece’s note is configurable — different colored houses have different pitches, for instance, and you can adjust volume and beat delay independently for each piece — there’s no end to how complex the resulting composition can be. Creating intersections allows your song to take random turns as the cars on the roads do, and you can place stoplights and adjust the speeds of individual cars to complicate things even further. “Tune’s” charming and accessible interface belies its incredible capacity for creating surprisingly rich music, and if you don’t believe it, the app’s Game Center-powered sharing tool — which allows you browse and download other players’ compositions while also sharing your own masterpieces — provides shining proof of the possibilities.

Games 3/6/12: Mass Effect 3, Zumba Fitness Rush, Warp

Mass Effect 3
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Bioware/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language, violence)
Price: $60

Bioware wants everyone to enjoy “Mass Effect 3,” which is why it’s instituted options that allow players to enjoy it purely as a third-person shooter (with all role-playing upgrades and moral crises handled automatically) or a role-playing game (in which you still must fight, but against a considerably more generous difficulty curve).

But if you’ve been with the “Mass Effect” trilogy from the beginning and have no desire to play its closing chapter in a compromised state, let there be no confusion: Everyone is invited to play, but “ME3” was very much still made for you.

Bioware poured an encyclopedic ton of galactic mythology into the first two chapters of its space epic, and without spoiling a single story point, “ME3” pays it all off magnificently. The battle against the galaxy-cleansing Reapers is thrilling and narratively exhaustive enough to enthrall new players — instead of assembling a squadron, as you did in “ME2,” you’re rounding up an entire galaxy’s worth of warring races to defeat the Reapers — but there is a considerable bonus for those making return visits. The conditions of “ME3’s” core conflict produce some jarringly unlikely alliances, and the sheer number of loose ends Bioware ties up (with regard to characters and entire sectors of space alike) is staggering.

As per series custom, “ME3” provides the option to import a save file from “ME2,” and it’ll tailor itself to reflect the choices you made (and, perhaps, the characters who consequently perished) in those first two games. Also per series custom, the ending you see will come down to some brutal decisions you’ll have to quickly make en route to your showdown with the Reapers. No one does this stuff better than Bioware, and “ME3” does it better than ever.

The actual act of playing “ME3” has changed little from its predecessor: It looks great, benefits from reasonably smart A.I., and as cover-based third-person shooters with light squad management abilities go, it hits enough competent marks to uphold its part of the package. Seeking cover remains occasionally problematic when embroiled in a 360-degree fight: Sometimes an attempt to find cover will result in a roll that leaves you more vulnerable than you already were. Occasionally the enemy count skyrockets and things just fall apart. But these moments are rare and, over the course of a 30-hour game that mostly plays without incident, forgivable.

A note to Xbox 360 owners: If you have a Kinect that’s suffering from neglect, plug it in. “ME3” uses the Kinect’s voice-recognition abilities better than any game ever has, and being able to manage your squad and change weapons without pausing to use the radial menu is a surprisingly valuable time-saver.

And a note to those who couldn’t stand “ME2’s” space-mining minigame: “ME3” brings it back in an altered, reduced and surprisingly tense new incarnation. It’s still wholly optional, but give it a chance.

“ME3” marks the series’ first foray into multiplayer, and the result — four-player online co-op, tasking you (as a lower-level soldier) and your teammates with eliminating waves of enemies — is your standard survival co-op mode. The combat feels the same, and with six character classes to upgrade and lots of perks, challenges and gear to unlock, the mode certainly has legs. It isn’t wholly fresh, but it’s very solid.

The one ingenious aspect of the multiplayer is how it ties back into your solo campaign. Your efforts to battle enemy forces feeds into the larger war against the Reapers: The more waves you take out in a sector of the galaxy, the stronger your fleet becomes in that sector. You need not participate to see “ME3’s” story reach its conclusion, but your story might have a happier ending if you do.

Zumba Fitness Rush
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Zoë Mode/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $50

If your aptitude as a Zumba Fitness master is of great significance to you, “Zumba Fitness Rush’s” progress tracker — which compiles daily, weekly and monthly reports about your technique as well as your time invested and calories burned — will be a source of great comfort (or perhaps, depending on the result, great shame.)

But for the rest of you who just want to have fun working out and not have a computer constantly tell you you’re doing it wrong, “Rush” — be it because it can’t or simply because it understands where you’re coming from — is a welcome change of pace.

“Rush’s” setup should feel familiar to anyone at home with dance or fitness games, because it’s basically an amalgamation of both. Along with the progress tracker, there’s a roster of preset classes (15 each of short, medium and full length), as well as a tool for assembling your own workout from the 42 songs (and accompanying routines) on offer.

Rounding out the feature set is a mode for dancing to a single song, a tool for finding live Zumba classes if you’re ready to take your act public, and a place to acquaint yourself with (and practice) the myriad of dance steps scattered throughout those routines.

That practice feature may be of interest to you if you want some grasp of the Zumba method before taking on a workout.

But even if you study up, your first “Rush” workout (and, likely, several more after that) will likely bring with it the sensation of being dropped into the deep end of the pool. Once the song begins, you’re on the clock, and if you’re expecting your virtual trainer to give you any cues as to which steps are in your immediate future, you should just give that idea up and prepare to react and emulate as quickly as you can.

Fortunately, “Rush” drops you into that pool with a life preserver in the form of a very generous technique feedback system. Make an honest attempt to keep up and reasonably replicate what’s happening on screen, and you’ll likely come away with a pretty good score. Keep a good pace, and you might even fake your way into a five-star performance. The Kinect isnt sophisticated enough to dock points based on the flustered expression on your face, so, it’ll assume you at least partially know what you’re doing.

The line of trust “Rush” draws is arguably perfect by way of being so wobbly. You can’t outright cheat it, and you slack or completely disobey the routine, it will catch and penalize you. As with a good in-person workout, the goal here is to get you moving first and learn the technique second, and regardless of “Rush’s” intentions, that’s what it achieves.

Save for its wide berth with regard to technique, “Rush’s” Kinect implementation is pretty sharp. Two-player support works similarly as long as you have the room (some routines require lateral movement that could spell trouble for uncoordinated friends). Getting around the game also is easy thanks to support for Kinect’s voice recognition abilities: Speak a menu option or even a routine’s song’s name, and it’ll head right to it — no annoying hand-waving necessary.


Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming soon for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Windows PC
From: Trapdoor/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)
Price: $15

You’d be forgiven for initially wondering why “Warp” — a seemingly harmless puzzle/stealth hybrid starring a muttering alien, named Zero, who might be the cutest Pixar character Pixar never created — got slapped with a Mature rating. Thankfully, once you use Zero’s warping ability to literally warp into the body of a soldier and bloodily explode out of him, it becomes clear in a hurry. Zero’s initial trick, which allows him to instantly warp roughly five feet in any direction, comes into play via an overhead puzzle arrangement that plays as much like a “Metal Gear Solid” offshoot as anything else. Zero is helpless in a direct fight against the soldiers, scientists and other traps trying to contain (or kill) him in the facility he’s trying to escape, so you’ll have to plot a stealthy route through large, open-ended areas that are equally rich with hazards and items he can use to his creative advantage. New abilities, including cloning and telekinesis, gradually expand his arsenal to counter a difficulty that climbs gradually before spiking near the end, and the large environments house special challenge areas (complete with online leaderboards) and other bonus content for players who really want to put their abilities through the wringer. As puzzle games go, “Warp” is a legitimately clever mind-bender, and as a stealth games go, it’s terrifically tense. That odd-couple combination, along with the wild mishmash of adorable and bloody that weaves Zero’s story together, adds up to an experience that has few peers.

Games 1/10/12: Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012, Invizimals: Shadow Zone, NFL Blitz

Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild suggestive themes, violent references)
Price: $50

That hissing sound you hear? That’s your resolution to get in shape slowly seeping out of the room as the new year starts feeling familiar and the excitement of 2012’s first week gets pushed out of the way by life as usual. Gym memberships are expensive, finding time to go to the gym is a hassle, making a plan is hard, sticking to it harder. Seeing progress requires saintly patience, and on top of all that, exercise for exercise’s sake is often really boring.

Thank goodness for, of all things, video games — and particularly this one. After a year of good-but-not-great fitness games releasing for Microsoft’s Kinect, “Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012” gets pretty much everything right en route to knocking every aforementioned excuse off the table.

The polish is immediately apparent, too. In addition to not being a complete pain to navigate using Kinect (voice control would have been nice, but it proves unnecessary), “Evolved’s” main menu very cleanly lays out a staggering array of workout programs, games, virtual classes and other tools. Inside each of those menus lies a large array of programs organized by intensity and the goals they help fulfill. The offerings — targeted strength training, yoga and dance classes, training programs for specific sports and numerous others — are terrifically comprehensive, and “Evolved’s” uncluttered and intuitive presentation of all these options is extraordinary.

“Evolved’s” My Zone section allows the game to build workout plans for you based on your needs and availability, but they aren’t binding: A game-wide stat tracker gauges your progress against your goals, and it does so regardless of which programs you engage or ignore. Additionally, most programs are on the short side, making it easy to jump around and diversify your workout as wildly and impulsively as you please.

Though “Evolved” can only do so much to make its straightforward workout programs fun, it at least does a good job of keeping hassles at bay. A trainer demonstrates each exercise as he or she calls them out, and while the game’s grading of your form isn’t always accurate, it’s close enough to keep you minding your form without growing needlessly frustrated doing so. Kinect calibration happens quickly and automatically, and “Evolved” works well regardless of lighting and whether you have a surplus of room or just enough.

The ability to jump between programs is additionally welcome in light of “Evolved’s” suite of games and special events, which provide a fun means of breaking up straight-faced workout routines. A block-punching game provides a physically intense way to unleash some aggression, while a rhythmic stepping game evokes the spirit of “DanceDanceRevolution” without the need for a dance mat. An amusing jogging game lets you run through VR recreations of storied cities, while a block-balancing game lets you employ your newfound yoga skills in pursuit of a high score.

“Evolved” provides multiple difficulty settings and a scoring system for each of these and its other games, but it offers the same courtesy to its traditional workouts as well. The periodic tendency to misread your form will dock your scores unfairly now and then, but past that inconvenience, the constant presence of scores to beat and other meters of progress — along with in-game badges and Xbox 360 achievements — allows “Evolved” to continually dangle and dish rewards beyond the simple promise of fitter days ahead.

Should you not wish to do it alone, “Evolved” also includes in-game tools — and a companion website, — that let you stack your progress against that of your friends and the world at large. The games also support four-player multiplayer, though only offline.


Invizimals: Shadow Zone
For: Playstation Portable
From: Novarama/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, fantasy violence)
Price: $40 (includes PSP camera accessory)

Augmented reality is neat, and Sony’s PSP camera accessory — an adjustable camera that pops into the top of the PSP and can be adjusted to be a front- or rear-facing camera — is pretty nice as well. “Invizimals: Shadow Zone” uses the latter to create a game based around the former, and as a demonstration of all that cool tech, it’s certainly a proof of concept.

Whether it amounts to more than that will come down to your interest in monster-collecting games and your patience with a story that has you watching the game as much as you play it.

“Zone” arrives a year after the original “Invizimals,” and most of the essentials remain the same. It’s a “Pokemon”-style game, and when you drill that story down to its bare bones, the object — collect Invizimals and pit them in battle against other Invizimals — is the same.

The difference, of course, comes with how you discover and track those Invizimals. Instead of exploring an expansive game world, you’re walking around your own world and panning the camera around until you spot an augmented-reality Invizimal frolicking around your furniture or other surroundings. (They favor bright colors, so if your surroundings lack any, it may be wise to correct that before hunting in vain.)

Upon spotting one, you have to lay down your trap card (bundled with the game), and once you do that, one of a handful of rather simple minigames commences. Complete that, and the Invizimal is yours to customize (name and color scheme), upgrade and employ in battle.

“Zone’s” fighting portion also differs from “Pokemon’s” in that it’s more real-time combat than not. Attacks are mapped to buttons instead of menus, but a need to recover stamina between moves lends an air of turn-based strategy to the fight.

Problem is, there isn’t much more to the fighting than the threadbare description implies. Because the Invizimals appear in augmented reality and in relation to the trap card, you can’t move them around the space with the analog stick. Outside of basic and strong attacks and a block button, there’s little nuance to the fighting, and that doesn’t change as you advance through “Zone’s” storyline.

Nor, for that matter, does the act of trapping Invizimals, which is neat until the tech’s novelty wears off. Though “Zone” offers incentive for those who absolutely must collect every single Invizimal for no other reason than sheer compulsion, it never builds on its mechanics in any substantial way, nor does it introduce new concepts as things progress.

That’s a problem when you spend as much time watching as you do playing.

“Zone,” like its predecessor, tells its story through first-person live-action cutscenes, and if you got into the first game’s story, you’ll be happy to know it delves even deeper into Invizimal mythology this time around.

If, however, you didn’t like that story, “Zone’s” incremental advancements over its predecessor are bound to disappoint. The AR tech works better this time around, but the game’s inability to take that tech and expand on it is hard to defend in light of how simple those mechanics are.

“Zone’s” competitive multiplayer portion (two players, local wireless or online) consists of a pretty straightforward versus mode and a tournament option, while a co-op mode (local only) allows two players to team up and complete select quests together. None of the modes eludes the aforementioned problems that bring down the story mode, but it’s still nice to have the option to put your custom Invizimals up against those of a friend.


NFL Blitz
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild language, mild suggestive themes, mild violence)
Price: $15

Though Midway’s “Blitz: The League” games were head-and-shoulders deeper than “NFL Blitz” ever was, the one thing it couldn’t provide — the NFL license — was the one players wanted the most. With both the franchise and license now in EA Sports’ hands, that no longer poses a problem. And while this “Blitz” lacks some elements — roster management, injuries, story-driven seasons and giggle-inducing illegal late hits — of those other games, the arcadey spirit of those original “NFL Blitz” games returns in immaculate condition. The old rules (seven on seven, 30-yard first downs, two-minute quarters and no penalties) still apply, and a game of “Blitz” plays so fast and loose with football conventions that you need not even like football to get a kick out of this. Also per usual, it’s a game best enjoyed with others (four players, online or offline). In addition to basic pick-up games, the new “Blitz” includes some clever and surprisingly deep modes for collecting star players, assembling dream teams and pitting those teams against other players’ rosters. For solo players, “Blitz’s” A.I. offers a good (if not always situationally sharp) challenge. And while it isn’t as robust as the multiplayer modes, the Gauntlet Mode — a ladder-style season complete with “boss fights” against teams of fantastical characters — is fun in its own right (especially when you beat those mascots and recruit them to your team).

Games 12/13/11: Kung-Fu High Impact, Zombie Gunship

Kung-Fu High Impact
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Virtual Air Guitar Company/UTV Ignition
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence, mild language, use of tobacco)
Price: $40

There’s plenty to like about “Kung-Fu High Impact.” It is, in fact, one of the year’s better Kinect games, and one of the few that reaches past the realm of fitness tools and minigame collections to produce an actual game that tangibly benefits from Microsoft’s motion control device.

Just don’t be surprised if some of the most fun you have with it is when you have a controller in hand.

“Impact” is a 2D brawler somewhat in the vein of “Double Dragon,” “Final Fight” and any number of other games that propagated during the genre’s heyday. The stages are small but open-ended instead of large but constantly scrolling from left to right, but the gist — punch and kick the bad guys into submission before they do it to you first — remains the same.

In this case, though, you very literally are the character. The Kinect’s camera uses its motion-detecting magic to superimpose a direct feed of yourself onto the level, and once you’re there, “Impact’s” hit detection leaves you free to punch and kick as efficiently or sloppily as your ability allows. Backflips and a handful of special powers are triggered via poses or half-move gestures (because asking players to actually backflip is asking for trouble). But as far as your elementary punches, kicks, elbows, blocks, dodges, jumps and lateral motion go, successful execution is entirely dependent on your willingness to fight with conviction.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because “Impact” first tried this, with dodgy results, on the Playstation 3 as “Kung-Fu Live.” Fortunately, the Kinect’s significantly better ability to discern player from background makes “Impact” effortless to set up and exponentially less likely to betray you in the heat of battle. You’ll ideally want to play with good lighting to make it easier to see your onscreen likeness, but it isn’t mandatory to do so — only more difficult if you don’t.

On that note, it’s bears mentioning that even on its base difficulty, “Impact’s” single-player storyline can punish you. More than not, it’s punishing in a good way, with furious enemy rushes and an expectation that you paid attention to the tutorials about dodging and blocking as well as punching and kicking.

Sometimes, though, “Impact” simply betrays you — confusing forward jumps with backflips, for instance, or just plain not recognizing a crucial evasive maneuver. “Impact” is tough with regard to mid-level checkpoints and health pickups, and one bungled move at the wrong time can bring your life to an aggravating end. It doesn’t happen too much if you accentuate your motions, but it will happen.

Of course, when a game is as physically intense as “Impact” is, accentuation gradually becomes easier said than done. If you like the Kinect for its fitness possibilities but still want actual games to play on it, this arguably is the best combination of both ideals in the system’s library.

Occasional aggravation aside, “Impact’s” story mode is a treat, with diverse environments, some surprising special powers, and a clever means of putting you in the motion comic cutscenes. The game asks you to assume a fews poses for pictures that later are superimposed atop the comic panels, and it’s hard to say whether cooperating or flagrantly disobeying the instructions produces funnier results.

Local multiplayer (five players), however, is “Impact’s” crown jewel. Player one’s role remains unchanged in this mode, but instead of A.I.-controlled enemies, you’re taking on your friends, who control the enemies with standard controllers. It’s a brilliant way to make a multiplayer Kinect game without cramming everyone into a small space and confusing the camera, and the lengths players can comfortably go to torment an out-of-breath friend makes this a must-play party game.


Zombie Gunship
For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Limbic Software
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild realistic violence, infrequent/mild horror/fear themes)
Price: $1

It’s hard to be mystified by the explosive popularity of mobile gaming when games like “Zombie Gunship” — which takes one of the most popular mission styles from a $60 “Call of Duty” game and practically gives it away — keep springing up. “Gunship” puts you at the controls of an AC-130 gunship, and if the aircraft needs no introduction, the game’s presentation — a semi-blurry, night vision-esque visual filter, presented from an altitude that makes zombies and fleeing humans look like ants — won’t need one, either. The customary weapons (a 25mm Gatling gun for precision’s sake, a 40mm Bofors auto-cannon for more explosive strikes and a 105mm Howitzer cannon for clearing out zombies by the dozen) are at your disposal, and the object is simple: Help as many humans reach the bunker safely before zombies overwhelm the perimeter and lockdown takes effect. “Gunship” doesn’t aim much higher than that: You’re playing essentially for high score, and the game’s two maps aren’t tied into any kind of narrative. But given its faithfulness to the mission style and its consequential ability to satiate the itch to rain down destruction from high above, that’s plenty good enough for the price. “Gunship” carves out some replay value via a currency system that lets you upgrade the weapons and unlock some other perks, and Game Center support means you can compete with friends for leaderboard bragging rights. (Achievement-collecting junkies are, for the time being, out of luck.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Games 7/19/11: Wipeout: In the Zone, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, Bastion

Wipeout: In the Zone
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Behaviour Interactive/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $50

Lest there be any confusion at all, let’s put this right here: “Wipeout: In the Zone” is not, by the standards of such things as technical prowess, controller responsiveness and depth, a great game.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be awesome.

“Zone” is the home version of the ABC game show “Wipeout,” which isn’t so much a game show as a collection of absurd obstacle courses that pummel, trip up and otherwise knock the show’s contestants into a playful form of oblivion (usually water or mud).

The Xbox 360 already has a game, “Doritos Crash Course,” that mimics the “Wipeout” experience, and like “Zone,” it allows you to run through its courses as your Xbox Live avatar. It’s also, at a cost of free, a significantly better value than “Zone.”

But “Course” is played using a controller, while “Zone” is solely a Kinect-fueled experience. And while that means this is the less precise and more potentially aggravating of the two games, it also brings the absurdity of the onscreen activity to life in a way a controller simply cannot.

Provided you crack the manual ahead of time, “Zone’s” controls are mostly intuitive. To make your character walk, run, jump or crouch on the course, you do the same in place in front of the Kinect. Leaning left or right allows for a modicum of balance control when airborne or on a balance beam, and a stopping gesture halts your character’s movement entirely (because stopping to avoid an obstacle sometimes makes more sense than outrunning it).

“Mostly intuitive,” of course, isn’t the same as “intuitive.” Sometimes the game lags for just a moment when registering a new motion, and sometimes, that moment makes all the difference between success and failure.

Be prepared, also, to have some serious trouble aiming your landing when jumping between three or four consecutive targets. The lean controls work well on balance beams, but the sensitivity never feels quite right when you’re airborne.

More troubling than any issues with control, though, are the weird camera angles “Zone” sometimes uses to frame certain obstacles. Though the action mostly plays out like a sidescrolling platforming game, the camera occasionally tilts to odd angles when an obstacle’s size mandates zooming out. Gauging your timing is tricky enough as is, and during some of these sections, it just feels like guesswork.

The good news is that if you don’t take your course time too seriously, a fall or 10 isn’t a big deal — and not just because the instant replays are often hilarious. “Zone” is generous with checkpoints on the course, and the only penalty for falling is that your finish time won’t look as pretty as it would following a perfect run. (You can even skip portions of the course if they’re driving you crazy, though this will penalize your time.)

Similarly, while “Zone’s” issues should be inexcusable for a game centered around getting the best time and improving on it, it’s hard not to have fun if you play with the right mindset and especially the right crowd. “Zone” supports four-player local multiplayer — no online, unfortunately — and your failures are that much easier to forgive when you can revel in the wipeouts of others shortly after.

On a side note, if your ulterior goal with Kinect is to burn a few calories while playing games, this one’s a must-play. A typical event in “Zone” entails two to four minutes of continuous running, jumping, balancing and ducking, and stringing a handful of events together makes for a surprisingly good workout.


Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, mild language, suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $40 for standalone disc, $15 as downloadable add-on for Super Street Fighter IV

Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Capcom
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Price: $40

It’s only fitting to dedicate half-reviews to Capcom’s latest releases, because neither feels like a wholly new game.

In the case of “Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition,” though, that’s not a slam. This is, for those keeping score, the third “SFIV” release in three years, but Capcom’s handling it the right way by offering it as a $15 add-on to “Super Street Fighter IV” owners in addition to selling it in stores as a budget-priced standalone game.

Those who choose the $15 route will be able to switch freely between “SSFIV” and “AE” — a good thing, because “AE” isn’t another giant leap forward so much as a means for dedicated players to have access to the same version of the game that appears in arcades. Four new characters bring the roster to 39, but “AE’s” bigger selling point is a barrage of balancing tweaks that casual players may not even notice.

In other words, “AE” is primarily for the fanbase, who will break every last tweak down to the granule. But with that said, everything “SSFIV” added last year is in this year’s edition as well. If the standalone version marks your first foray into this franchise, this is the version to get — and, at $40, a great value for all it holds inside.

The same cannot be said of “Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D,” which turns a throwaway bonus mode from previous “Resident Evil” games into its own game and tries to sell a very empty package for the exact same price.

The idea itself isn’t inherently bad, because those Mercenaries modes, which turned previous “RE” levels and encounters into arcade-style, score-based survival arenas, were great fun.

The fundamental gameplay carries over, too. “Mercenaries'” characters and settings, all lifted from those other “RE” games, look good on the little 3DS screen, and the game offers two control schemes — one that lets you run and shoot simultaneously with a combination of the stick and face buttons, and one in which you use the same stick to alternately run and aim — that nicely compensate for the system’s lack of a second stick.

But Mercenaries mode has always been good for the occasional quick playthrough and not much more. Building a whole game around it doesn’t change that, especially when nothing has been done to meaningfully expand on the premise.

“Mercenaries” attempts to justify its asking price by providing a healthy amount of different characters (and, by extension, different weapons) and special skills to unlock. A scoring and grading system, in addition to tying into those rewards, also adds some arcade-style replay value to the missions.

Problem is, the underlying gameplay, all by itself, is too shallow and too repetitive for either of these perks and even local/online co-op support (two players) to carry it very far. Not much changes from one mission to another, so you’ll essentially do the same thing ad nauseam to get a few rewards that make it minimally and briefly more enjoyable to do it some more until you collect another meager return.

A controversy has erupted over Capcom’s use of a save system that doesn’t allow players to reset their progress and start over once they’ve unlocked everything. It’s a shortsighted move that, were “Mercenaries” worth purchasing and playing, would rob players of the ability to replay the game or let others play through it and unlock the rewards themselves. Fortunately, it’s not, so here’s hoping Capcom learned its lesson and doesn’t apply such practices to a game in which doing so will actually matter.


For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Supergiant Games/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, fantasy violence, use of alcohol and tobacco)
Price: $15

You have to do something a little bit special if you want to be a dungeon crawler that isn’t just another dungeon crawler. Fortunately, magnificently and on multiple levels, “Bastion” rises to the challenge. The basic tenants of a dungeon crawler are here — the isometric perspective, the mix of upgradable character attributes, skills and weapons (ranged and melee, of course), and the fundamental gameplay foundation for which the genre is known. But between the lines, “Bastion” is a whole different animal. The collectible skills — which range from grenades and mines to what by any other name are spells — are diverse enough to accommodate whatever combat approach you prefer. That’s no small thing, either, because “Bastion’s” action is considerably faster and more involved than that of most dungeon crawlers. (Get to know your shield and evasive roll maneuvers, because in a pleasantly surprising development, you’ll need both.) But while the prioritization of action over mindless grinding is “Bastion’s” most welcome development, the game’s presentation remains its calling card. Vibrant floating worlds literally assemble around you as you advance through them, and “Bastion’s” storytelling comes courtesy of a narrator who dynamically tells your story based around how you play the game. Imagine a sports game’s play-by-play, but applied to a wholly different genre and delivered with a level of polish and wit that puts many $60 games to shame, and you have an inkling of how good “Bastion” sounds. The idea makes so much sense, it’s amazing no one’s delivered on it until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Games 6/7/11: Red Faction: Armageddon, Kinect Fun Labs

Red Faction: Armageddon
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Volition, Inc./THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, strong language, violence)
Price: $60

When 2009’s “Red Faction: Guerrilla” took a series of first-person shooters and dropped it into a third-person open world that let you destroy basically everything brick by brick, the result wasn’t just a wildly successful reinvention; it was one of the year’s most fun games.

That, in turn, makes “Red Faction: Armageddon” — which keeps the third-person perspective but loses the open world in favor of a linear trip through a mostly dank underground — something of a letdown despite the fact that what it does is refreshing in its own right.

Specifically, it isn’t a cover-based shooter like seemingly every post-“Gears of War” third-person shooter has been. There’s a crouch button you can use, but “Armageddon” would rather just force you to run, gun and go wild the way shooters used to do before they lost their nerve.

In fact — and true to the “Red Faction” brand — “Armageddon” would rather you destroy your enemies’ cover instead of hide behind cover of your own. And while this game doesn’t provide the wealth of scenarios “Guerrilla” provided, it beats that game in terms of means.

Take, for instance, the Magnet Gun, which you fire at two separate targets to make them crash together like impossibly strong magnets from across a crowded cavern. You can fire the Magnet Gun at any combination of enemy or structure, and because “Armageddon’s” destruction engine is absolutely unbridled, what you imagine happening — say, the bottom floor of a building flying through the roof and into a hapless enemy who is hurtling through the air at the same speed — will probably happen.

Take, also, the Singularity Cannon, which fires black holes that suck away anything or anyone not fused to the ground. Considering how much of “Armageddon’s” scenery is fair game for destruction, that adds up to some seriously impressive storms from a single shot.

For traditionalists, “Armageddon” also includes the usual explosives, while “Guerrilla” fans will appreciate the return of gaming’s most destructive sledgehammer. An in-game currency is good toward unlocking additional abilities, including a power that’s not unlike (and certainly no less damaging than) a “Star Wars” Jedi’s Force push. The mech suits from “Guerrilla” also return in a limited role.

Oddly enough, “Armageddon’s” other big trick is the ability to rebuild all that destroyed terrain on the fly with the Nano Forge gadget. A few gameplay scenarios have you repairing certain structures to advance the story, and the trick occasionally works in a pinch to create cover when blazing guns won’t do. Mostly, though, it provides a means for you to tear the place apart and still have a way to get up stairs and out the door when it’s time to move on.

All these toys make “Armageddon” fun in spite of some significant drawbacks — in particular, a flat storyline that takes you through a lot of similar-looking environments and pits you almost exclusively against an enemy of bug creatures who aren’t nearly as interesting as “Guerrilla’s” human opposition. Even with all these tools and methods, “Armageddon” tends to drag in spots while you move from one familiar-looking area to the next.

But the worst news is reserved for those who loved “Guerrilla’s” competitive multiplayer, which “Armageddon” lacks entirely. There’s a co-op (four players, online or offline) Survival mode that’s reasonably fun, if uninspired, and a Ruin mode that tasks you with destroying an area within a set time is enjoyable when the strict times aren’t getting in the way. But neither mode, both of which are set in the same areas against the same enemies with the same intelligence, has nearly the legs of “Guerrilla’s” open-world warfare.


Kinect Fun Labs
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Good Science/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: Free

When Microsoft first unveiled Kinect in 2009, it hinted at the possibility of some wild tricks that go well beyond simple motion control. By itself, “Kinect Fun Labs” isn’t a complete validation of that promise: As a collection of experimental gadgets, it isn’t really a complete anything. But “Labs” provides the first opportunity consumers have to go hands-on with some of the ideas it teased two years ago. In “Kinect Build a Buddy,” for instance, you can scan a real-world object (a toy, for instance) with the Kinect’s camera and bring that object to life as a laughing, dancing, jumping being. “Bobblehead” and “Kinect Me,” meanwhile, allow you to scan yourself in and let the software transform your face, body and clothing into a bobblehead doll or video game avatar, respectively. The software is far from foolproof — expect some surprising results in the hair department, especially if your lighting isn’t ideal — but it works, and some of the surprising detail the camera picks up (including detailed facsimiles of your clothing’s color, patterns and images) is really cool. “Labs” doesn’t have any functionality beyond general amusement and the ability to download and share pictures and videos of your experiments online. But for the price of zero dollars, the simple thrill of putting your hands on the future is enough. Considering how expandable “Labs” is — additional gadgets are marked as coming soon, with more almost certainly on the way — there’s no telling how interesting this could get.