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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Games 1/25/11: Dead Space 2, Kinect Joy Ride, Spare Parts

Dead Space 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Visceral Games/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

Everyone makes third-person shooters now. But nobody has made anything like 2008’s “Dead Space,” which took a suddenly oversaturated genre, doused it in ingredients normally reserved for horror games, and turned that combination into a brutally claustrophobic shooter with a fiction that puts most contemporary science fiction to shame.

“Dead Space 2” expands its playing field from a solitary spaceship under siege to an enclosed space city that’s been left in ruin by the invading mutant Necromorphs (who, depending on your interpretations of the first game’s events, are either evil incarnate or victims of fanaticism gone obscenely wrong). But while the environment is larger and more diverse — a point driven home by portions of the game that take place in wide-open, zero-gravity space — the storytelling is considerably more personal.

Engineer-turned-army of one Isaac Clarke was a silent protagonist in the first game, but “DS2” gives him both human companionship and a voice, and without spoiling anything behind the necessity of those additions, both are for the better. Isaac’s odyssey hits the ground blazing as soon as “DS2” cedes control to you, and the 15 chapters that follow are a clinic on how to give a formerly silent character a voice and a starring role without ever allowing him to overstay his welcome or trivialize the significance of the larger story around him.

Most importantly — and in the spirit of its predecessor — the storytelling sets the table for an exhilarating wave of showdowns against a more powerful Necromorph force on turf that often favors them over you.

All of the first game’s hallmarks — inventive weapons, great controls, a painfully good ability to illustrate the might of attacking Necromorphs who break through Isaac’s defenses — are hallmarks in “DS2” as well. But “DS2” upgrades the shooting controls from great to immaculate, and it provides more opportunities to put the secondary weapons’ unique specialties to invaluable use. Even Isaac’s telekinesis device, previously good for solving puzzles but little else, is a formidable combat tool this time.

Chiefly, though, “DS2” just sets better tables than its predecessor did. A vicious enemy from the first game returns at the worst time imaginable here, and the two-chapter chase that follows should rattle the nerves of even the most stoic players. Elsewhere, a new, exponentially savvier strain of Necromorph engages Isaac in a game of hide-and-seek that turns ordinary corridor crawls into dangerous instances of walking on tiptoes and constantly stopping to look over your shoulder whenever you hear a clank or the lighting plays tricks on you.

These and other moments provide “DS2” with its highlights, but it bears mentioning that, outside of one chapter that goes slightly overboard with cheap scares, there really aren’t any lowlights. The fundamental formula that steered the first game drives this one as well, but every chapter changes the rules just enough to keep the action from ever losing its edge. As story-driven experiences go, this is — by any metric — as good as it gets.

Though it wasn’t really necessary, Visceral decided to incorporate multiplayer (eight players, online only) into “DS2” anyway. What results is pretty much what you’d expect: Familiar shooter conventions and map designs apply, and the more you play (and kill), the more weapons and perks you can unlock.

Compared to the single-player stuff, “DS2’s” multiplayer is pretty pedestrian. But all that gameplay polish carries over, so it plays well. It also provides players their first opportunity to play as four species of Necromorph, whose unique movement and attack methods make a surprisingly smooth migration over to the multiplayer arena.

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Kinect Joy Ride
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Big Park/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Everything that’s wonderful and broken about Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral can be found within the confines of “Kinect Joy Ride,” and often within the span of a single event.

As the name and presentation imply, “Ride” is a deeply casual racing game. The tracks are delightfully cartoony, the cars look like toy replicas instead of actual cars, and your Xbox Live avatar fits right into the visual theme as your driver.

But nothing in that exterior can illustrate just how casually “Ride” plays. There are, for instance, no crash physics, because you cannot crash no matter how poorly you drive. You also cannot brake or accelerate, because the game elects to handle that for you.

The inability to brake and accelerate isn’t a case of “Ride” safeguarding players from their own inability to drive safely, but instead an unspoken admission that the Kinect simply isn’t savvy enough to handle a full-featured racing game without a controller’s help. “Ride” elects not to use a controller, so there’s no way for players to subtly control their speed in a way the game can recognize with any satisfactory reliability.

Still, give “Ride” points for trying to put together the best racing game it can for a device that shouldn’t have one at all. Because while it didn’t succeed at that task, it turns out a unique and bizarrely fun game en route to falling short.

“Ride’s” event types run the arcade racing gamut, offering standard and sprint races along with a stunt ramp, trick competitions and a quirky event in which the goal is to smash into as much stuff as possible.

In all these events, the controls are fundamentally the same: You turn an imaginary steering wheel to steer your onscreen car, twist your body in any direction to perform tricks when the car is airborne, and, in the only direct control you have over your car’s speed, do a pull motion to accumulate turbo before pushing forward to boost.

As should be no surprise with a game that can’t handle subtle speed control, “Ride” isn’t immaculate at handling steering, either. It recognizes turns, but a sloppy grasp of precision will regularly cause accidental oversteering and understeering, and while you can’t crash, you most certainly can (and will) drive off the road.

Surprisingly, the boost mechanic is even worse: Even if you pull back violently, there’s an excellent chance the game will ignore you, making it entirely too difficult to time a boost for maximum gain. Get ready to boost too late, steer too hard and fly off the road, negating any benefit of accumulating turbo in the first place.

Fortunately, “Ride” at least seems recognizant of its shortcomings, making it pretty easy to unlock new events and rewards with so-so scores in the single-player portion of the game. And while “Ride” doesn’t remotely register as one of the Xbox 360’s best racers, the contortions needed to perform tricks and get your car to cooperate inspire a level of physical involvement that those otherwise superior games do not. Provided you can enjoy “Ride” on this silly, messy level and not take the need to succeed too seriously, it’s a surprisingly fun time that pretty savvily underscores the Kinect’s gifts as well as its shortcomings.

That’s especially true if you play with like-minded people. “Ride” supports offline (two players) and online (eight) multiplayer, and the shortcomings are that much easier to endure when everyone is in t
he same boat.

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Spare Parts
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: EA Bright Light/Electronic Arts
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

It’s only fair that a $10 game be held to a looser standard than a $60 or even $20 game, but “Spare Parts” occasionally pushes that generosity threshold to the edge. Mostly, “Parts” is a harmless case of “Ratchet and Clank” lite: You’re a robot named Mar-T, and while your default abilities consist solely of running, jumping, punching and firing flimsy projectiles, a handful of found parts gradually allows you to walk on magnetic walls, hover like a rocket and hack electronics. At its best — which, fortunately, is the rule and not the exception — “Parts” is a charming, visually vibrant game that uses these abilities to create some clever puzzles and platforming challenges. Occasionally, though, “Part” leans excessively on combat, which, due to sloppy combat controls that remain sloppy even when Mar-T upgrades its abilities, never really feel good. That comes to a head during the first half of the final boss fight, which drags unnecessarily and, due to a nearly non-existent penalty for death, isn’t challenging so much as monotonous. The second half of that fight, which funnels Mar-T’s abilities into a dispiritingly rote trial-and-error exercise, falls even flatter. The bad taste that lingers isn’t the deal-killer it would be in a more expensive game, but if you consider your time more valuable than your money, it’s still something to think about because you lock in your purchase.


Games 12/14/10: uDraw GameTablet, uDraw Studio, The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout, The Moonsters

uDraw GameTablet (includes uDraw Studio)
For: Wii
From: Pipeworks Software/THQ
Price: $70
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It probably goes without saying, but just in case it doesn’t, the uDraw GameTablet and accompanying “uDraw Studio” software are not optimized to facilitate the creation of serious artwork. The tablet isn’t as pressure-sensitive as a comparably-priced PC tablet, and while you can export your artwork to an SD card, the dimensions of the image (576 pixels wide, 396 pixels long) and the presence of a “uDraw Studio” watermark in the lower left corner aren’t exactly conducive to any kind of presentation beyond sharing with friends.

But just as “Mario Paint” became a sensation in 1992 despite coming nowhere close to playing in Adobe Premiere’s ballpark, “Studio” need not mimic Corel Paint to fulfill its promise as a fun and inexpensive outlet for kids and casual artists to flash some creativity. And because THQ has accompanied the uDraw’s launch with two other games that take advantage of the device in wholly different ways, it has positioned it as perhaps the only Wii peripheral besides the Balance Board to receive meaningful software support going forward.

Quibbles with pressure sensitivity aside, the uDraw is otherwise gifted with smart design choices. It contains a slot in which to pop a Wii remote, which gives the device a familiar array of buttons on the left side and access to the B trigger on the underside. The remote also provides all power to the tablet, which means that in addition to requiring no extra batteries, the tablet is as wireless and easy to pass around as any other controller.

The large stylus contains a useful two-function button (imagine a computer mouse’s two buttons fused into one) on its side, and while it is tethered to the tablet, the cord does not detract from the comfort of holding it. In a nice touch, the tablet includes two spots for storing the stylus — flat on the underside or like a quill in the top right corner — when not in use.

“Studio’s” design isn’t quite so elegant, and parents should make a point to run through the manual in order to help kids get comfortable with what initially is an intimidating and clumsily-arranged menu interface. “Studio’s” range of tools — multiple painting and drawing tools, multiple color pickers, stamps, filters — is impressive, but its interface organization requires some patient acclimation before it feels natural. (Tip: Though you can activate and navigate the tools palettes with the stylus buttons, using the remote is considerably more convenient.)

The good news is that once it feels natural, actually drawing with the uDraw works well. The limited pressure sensitivity provides some roadblocks, but it’s still entirely possible to create some legitimately great art using the tools on hand. The limitations placed on exported files is a real downer, but anyone who simply wants to sketch, save and share their creations can still easily do so if those limitations aren’t a problem.

It’s entirely feasible, anyway, that THQ could follow up “Studio” with a more powerful, more streamlined sequel, because the studio so far has backed up its claims that it will support the uDraw with more software than Nintendo usually produces for its own neglected peripherals. Already, the puzzle adventure game “Dood’s Big Adventure” provides a great showcase of the tablet’s strengths as applied to a traditional video game, while “Pictionary” freshens up a classic party game and demonstrates how much fun it is to pass the tablet around the room. THQ claims it has software tentatively lined up for release through the beginning of 2012, so the tablet’s future appears to be a bright one.

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The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Blitz Games/THQ
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The paradoxically great news about “The Biggest Loser Ultimate Workout” is that while it makes an alarmingly unfavorable first impression by botching the easy part, it redeems itself 10 times over by getting the hard part right — and, in doing so, demonstrating how viable Kinect is as a fitness tool.

Before you find that out, though, you must contend with the game’s menu interface, which is an exercise in itself. Very few Kinect games have demonstrated an aptitude for controller-free menu navigation, and “Workout” is especially poor. The buttons are too small, the time needed to hold your hand in place to activate them is too long, and the cursor compounds these issues by having a slight mind of its own and occasionally wandering off the button just before it activates. With practice and some familiarity with the wandering cursor’s ways, the problem becomes surmountable in the main menus. But when the interface calls for more precision — most notably, during the character creation area — you’ll just wish Microsoft would force developers to enable the controller as an optional means for menu navigation.

Fortunately, “Workout” demonstrates a whole different level of savvy when the task of actually working out is at hand.

Though “Workout” lets you take on its exercises as you please, its best offering is the availability of circuit-training sessions designed by trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, whose likenesses appear in the game as personal trainers. “Workout” allows you to design your own sessions, but its strength is its ability to tailor routines around basic settings (difficulty, length) and lay them out in a Fitness Program mode that gives you a calendar, goals and a clear picture of forward progress.

In action, the game absolutely shines. During all activities, a solid-colored likeness of your real self appears in the lower right corner, and the color of that likeness — ranging from green (perfect) to yellow (OK) to red (bad) — provides simple, continual feedback on how closely you’re replicating each exercise. Additional details above and below the likeness offer more specific feedback, making it easy to see what you’re doing wrong and what adjustments are necessary to correct it. The trainers repeat their lines a lot, sometimes consecutively, but for exercises that have you facing sideways, the spoken feedback’s value outweighs its repetition. (Thanks to the Kinect’s microphone, you can even talk back when your trainer asks if you need a break or are ready for something tougher.)

All this feedback checks out, too, because “Workout” is surprisingly good at reading and diagnosing the specifics of its exercises. Misinterpretations are inevitable, but the game never completely fouls up even when an exercise seems too complex for Kinect’s eyes, and the constant feedback makes it easy to understand and correct the source of the confusion when it pops up.

“Workout’s” impressive capacity makes it easy to let the Fitness Program take the lead and throw out whatever workout sessions it feels are best for your personal progress, and those willing to let it go further can also utilize the game’s secondary features, which include fitness tips, a calorie tracker, body analysis, extracurricular activities and mini-game challenges inspired by the challenges seen on the show. Those who want the full show experience can even participate in weigh-ins and record video diaries for posterity. You can’t plot against your fellow ranchers like they so often do on the show, but up to four players can play challenges and participate in multiplayer workouts over Xbox Live.

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The Moonsters
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Ars Thanea
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1

Though it’s easy and helpful to compare the basic controls of “The Moonsters” to those of “Angry Birds,” the game does too much differently — and does it too well — to simply dismiss it as yet another “Birds” imitation product. Instead of launching birds sideways, you’re launching a trio of silly looking aliens (called Moonsters) upward. The goal is to collect pieces of space tofu sprinkled around the area rather than wreak havoc. The key to a perfectly-placed shot relies more on geometry than physics. And instead of allowing multiple attempts per round, “The Moonsters” wants you to collect all the tofu in one strike. Perfection isn’t mandatory, and so long as you collect enough pieces to meet each level’s quota, the game scores and grades the effort and opens up the next level. But “The Moonsters” is most fun when it comes down to discovering the secret angle that results in a perfect score in each of the 100 levels, and it further encourages chasing perfection with Game Center achievements, high score leaderboards, a completely painless trial-and-error interface, and a story with three unlockable endings. Those secret endings hold more value than is initially apparent, because in addition to playing well, “The Moonsters” is gifted with a charming story, great character design, a sublime graphical style, and some of the most pleasantly catchy music to grace a mobile phone game.


Games 11/16/10: Goldeneye 007, Kinect Sports, MotionSports, Fighters Uncaged, The Fight: Lights Out, Superstars V8 Racing

Goldeneye 007
For: Wii
From: Eurocom/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

We’ve seen classic first-person shooters get reissues with slightly sharper graphics and slightly modernized controls. But “Goldeneye 007” represents the first time a publisher has brought a cherished shooter through the nostalgia wall and fully into the present, and the result is an extraordinary mix of old and new that feels startlingly fresh.

For starters, let’s be clear: This isn’t a simple cleaning up of the classic Nintendo 64 game. The new “Goldeneye” is a new game that adds new layers to the storyline (now starring Daniel Craig instead of Pierce Brosnan), parlays those layers into new environments, and uses the old set pieces as inspiration for new mission designs rather than for purposes of copying and pasting. Modern amenities — destructible environments, regenerating health on lower difficulties, the customary visual improvements and all they bring — make their presence felt, but its the way the game spins revered levels into new experiences that shines brighter.

At the same time, “Goldeneye” does not forsake its roots. Dispatching enemies stealthily — a game-changer back in 1997 — remains fun in 2010, in no small part because of “Goldeneye’s” immense gun selection and multilayered level design. But at no point does “Goldeneye” punish players who would prefer to recklessly run, gun and punch their way through. Most modern shooters do, and “Goldeneye’s” ability to retain its old-fashioned values while modernizing most everything else is perhaps its most impressive achievement. Other little touches — neutralized enemies fade away here the same way they did out of technical necessity on the N64 — provide undeniable winks without running interference on players who have no connection to the original game.

Technically speaking, “Goldeneye” looks good for a Wii game and certainly covers its bases in terms of controls. The remote/nunchuck combination works terrifically, very rarely confusing the need to adjust the gun’s aim with the need to turn, and the game includes a variant that caters to the Wii Zapper accessory. But those who want to play “Goldeneye” a little more traditionally (albeit with dual sticks, something the N64 lacked) can use the Classic or Gamecube controllers to do so.

“Goldeneye’s” campaign runs roughly twice as long as most of its contemporaries — a nod, intentional or not, to the days when first-person shooters prioritized length and elaborate level design over cutscenes and corridors.

But “Goldeneye’s” legendary status was built on the back of its multiplayer, and Eurocom’s successful replication of that will ultimately define this game as well.

True to form, “Goldeneye” includes four-player splitscreen, and the playable characters (Oddjob, Jaws, Julius No), modes (deathmatch, team deathmatch, Golden Gun) and modifiers (melee only, tiny players, paintball, invisibility) return from the original.

But “Goldeneye’s” online multiplayer (eight players) elevates this to the arguable top of the Wii’s first-person shooter heap. The lack of voice chat support for Nintendo’s neglected Wii Speak peripheral is disappointing, and the welcome ability to form four-player parties is still hampered on the ground floor by Nintendo’s clumsy friend code system. But players who want to just jump in and play some lag-free online “Goldeneye” finally can do so, and Eurocom rewards those who do with an experience points system that doles out better weapons and gadgets as players level up. Online multiplayer also takes advantage of the higher player count to add some new modes centered around team and objective-based play.

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Kinect Sports
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect Required)
From: Rare/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild cartoon violence)

MotionSports
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect Required)
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild violence)

Time will tell just how capable Kinect is as a full-body motion control device, but one thing is clear right now: No matter how good the hardware is, it always will bow at the mercy of its software.

Witness, for instance, the six sports (soccer, football, horseback riding, hang glinding, boxing, skiing) of “MotionSports,” which takes those sports and mostly doles them out in pieces. The soccer section has penalty kick and goaltending minigames, for instance, while the football section has challenges that test passing, running and kicking, but neither provides anything close to a replication of the full sport.

The bite-sized portions wouldn’t be such a big deal if “MotionSports” didn’t bog itself down in load screens and multiple menu tiers every time players complete or even attempt to just restart a minigame. Players will spend as much time waiting as they will playing because of how inelegant the interface is.

But the real problem with the simple games is that they should be able to handle their undemanding tasks far better than they do. Kicking a soccer ball or football is literally hit or miss, with the game regularly ignoring kicks and, if players take one step back too many, stopping the action entirely. The passing game offers no sense of control whatsoever, while boxing and horse riding feel as laggy and gesture-dependent as a bad Wii game from three years ago. Skiing and hang gliding work better, but they’re also the least demanding games, asking players to perform soft motions or simply lean instead of do anything intensive. The experience they provide over playing with a standard controller is negligible.

Perhaps we could blame the system and not “MotionSports” if its counterpart didn’t profoundly shame it, but that’s exactly what “Kinect Sports” does.

For starters, “Kinect Sports” presents more complete recreations of its offerings (soccer, beach volleyball, table tennis, bowling, boxing and five track and field events). Only soccer feels at all abstract, because players only pass, kick and block, but it’s still a regulation game of soccer instead of a tray of samples.

More than that, though, the games just work like they should. Boxing provides full fist control instead of just recognizing a few gestures, and while table tennis and bowling initially feel awkward due to there being nothing to physically hold, their abilities to recognize speed and spin quickly make playing them second nature. Volleyball easily differentiates between bumps, sets, spikes and even different types of serves, and the absence of lag makes it easy to execute outstanding long jumps and javelin throws without fouling or compromising the approach. “Kinect Sports” offers a tutorial for each sport, but it didn’t need to, and there’s no better testament to its flexibility and accessibility than that.

“Kinect Sports'” offers a nice single-player progression system, throws in some minigame variants of most sports and runs on an interface that completely outclasses that of “MotionSports.” It also supports four-player online multiplayer, which “MotionSports” omitted completely. (Both games have four-player offline multiplayer.) The Wii’s dearth of online-enabled motion games may be the unfortunate standard, but on a system that counts Xbox Live among its essential features, the expectations are higher.

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Fighters Uncaged
For: Xbox 360 (Kinect required)
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, violence)

T
he Fight: Lights Out
For: Playstation 3 (Playstation Move required)
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, simulated gambling, violence)

Hand-to-hand combat was an obvious motion game idea even when the Wii was in its infancy, and it makes significantly more sense with the added fidelity of the Playstation Move and Kinect.

On paper, “Fighters Uncaged” enjoys the early advantage, because in addition to fists, the Kinect can recognize different kinds of kicks, blocks and even a head butt. It’s a point the game drives home during an elongated opening training session that needlessly isolates each move inside its own tutorial.

The wealth of attacks is impressive, but it also demonstrates how overdesigned parts of “Uncaged’s” fighting system are. The game uses a three-tiered visual indicator to communicate how close the fighters are standing to each other, and the cluster of similar moves causes the game to rely on gesture recognition rather than use true full-body motion to assess the source, power, speed and location of an attack. The game also slows down and uses additional visual cues whenever it wants players to act defensively — perhaps a concession for a bizarre, diagonal camera angle that makes it hard to discern that stuff more naturally.

Naturally, it all falls apart once the tutorial safety is off. The concessions hamper the experience without compensating for “Uncaged’s” shortcomings with regard to recognizing specific moves or even any move at all. Taking damage because the game fails to act on your motions is entirely too common. “Uncaged’s” lifeless presentation — no character customization, crushingly repetitive single-player progression against a tiny roster of fighters — put the burden on the novelty of its controls, but those controls fall entirely too short for that not to backfire.

“The Fight: Lights Out” isn’t exactly spotless either, and the obvious downside is that, while the two required Move wands nicely double as fists, there’s no way to add kicking to the arsenal like “Uncaged” can. (An optional head-tracking feature also is best ignored, because it just doesn’t work.)

But while “The Fight” only has a fraction of the arsenal, it does more with it than “Uncaged” does with the entire palette. The level of control over each arm is still a little unwieldily — particularly early on before players can upgrade their fighter’s stamina — but it’s noticeably more fluid and never feels gesture-dependent. Your arms will sometimes flail wildly, and you’ll occasionally punch the other guy’s shoulder instead of his face, but a fumbled motion is miles better than an ignored one.

“The Fight’s” seamless action provides a better workout than “Uncaged” does, and the interface is better at rewarding players within the game as well. A surprisingly polished career mode allows players to train and fight at their own pace. And because the game centers around underground fights, players can bet in-game money (which pays for training sessions and gear) on the outcome and nature (clean or dirty) of their bouts. The career mode lets players design their own fighter — something “Uncaged” bafflingly omits — and the seedy presentation allows for touches (a desaturated high-contrast graphical presentation, a live-action Danny Trejo as the game’s mentor) that give it distinction and a welcome tongue-in-cheek quality.

“The Fight” also owns an advantage for its inclusion of local and online (two players each) multiplayer. Players also can watch and bet on other players’ bouts. “Uncaged,” by contrast, is completely multiplayer-free — an foreseeable move, considering the awkward camera angle, but also a final, inarguable indictment of a game that was underdeveloped in every regard.

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Superstars V8 Racing
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Milestone/O-Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone

No one has benefitted from “Gran Turismo 5’s” legendarily long delay more than O-Games, which, in addition to poking brilliant fun at said delay, has softened the wait in just the right way. “Superstars V8 Racing” does not compare to the forthcoming “GT5” in terms of car roster, track selection, modes or single-player investment. But it has a lot of important bases adequately covered, with a championship mode, a modest handful of scenario challenges, and very customizable race settings for single-player and online multiplayer (12 players). Most important, the on-track action feels like the equivalent of what many $60 racing games get. It looks like a full-priced game, and the cars handle comfortably but feel nice and weighty. “V8” also does a nice job of accommodating players of different disciplines: Though it doesn’t run as deep as “Turismo,” it allows knowledgable players to tune cars to their liking and ride purely, while also allowing those who want a more arcadey experience to turn on assists, turn off penalties, deactivate damage and ride as dangerously as they please. The flexibility carries over to online play, where hosts can set parameters according to their preferred discipline. If “V8” develops a following, it could be a good online destination for serious and not-so-serious racing fans alike.