Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II Review

Fluid combat and great art lift this Force-powered sequel above its flaws.

The Good

  • Excellent art design makes each environment stand out
  • Fun and flashy combat makes good use of motion controls
  • Great cutscenes and voice acting give the story emotional heft
  • Good boss fights ramp up the action.

The Bad

  • Too many cheap deaths
  • Lacks enemy variety
  • Unspectacular multiplayer.

The original Star Wars: The Force Unleashed buzzed with potential, but poor production values and the madness of random remote waggling muted the glow. With Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, the power of the Force has finally begun to manifest itself on the Nintendo Wii. Where the original struggled with combat momentum, The Force Unleashed II is smooth and satisfying; where the first game’s visuals were jagged and jittery, the follow-up’s are rich and varied. The gameplay is somewhat hobbled by a lack of enemy variety, among a few other flaws. However, not only is this version longer and more exciting than its high-definition counterparts, it moves along at a better pace and fills in an important story-related crevasse left gaping in the other versions. None of that matters if this is the only iteration of The Force Unleashed II you plan on picking up; what matters is that this is a good (and good-looking) action game that makes it a pleasure to slash up stormtroopers and fling them off walkways into the abyss beneath.

Starkiller must have a really high midichlorian count.

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The story is not as impressive as that of the original, but it is notable nonetheless. On the watery planet of Kamino, Darth Vader hovers over a familiar figure. It looks to be Starkiller, the original game’s leading man and Vader’s unauthorized apprentice. But is it really Starkiller–the one said to have sacrificed himself for the Rebellion? Thus, you step into this man’s shoes and begin your search for the truth, not to mention the search for Juno Eclipse, Starkiller’s former pilot and lover. Excellent voice acting and facial animations give cutscenes emotional impact, and a sequence on the planet of Dagobah melds gameplay and storytelling in a wonderful and unexpected way. It’s unfortunate that a lengthy central stretch that focuses on the combat needs of the Rebellion brings the narrative to a halt. In general, you spend less time getting to know Starkiller (or is it Starkiller?) and the supporting cast this time around, so the story arc isn’t as fulfilling as it might have been. Yet while the sequel may not boast a story as substantial as The Force Unleashed’s, it’s both fitting and fulfilling.

The Force Unleashed II features numerous prerendered cutscenes (the same scenes used in other versions of the game), but it also includes scenes of its own rendered within the game engine, and these are much improved over the glitchy and low-resolution cinematics of the original. The cutscenes are not the most impressive aspect of the production, however: the art design deserves the greatest kudos. Including the sojourn to Dagobah, you traverse four main environments, which isn’t as many as in the original, but your eclectic surroundings do a good job of providing visual variety. When you return to Kamino, for example, you start not on a rainy dais surrounded by the circular structures you would expect, but rather in natural corridors rich with red and gold hues. It would have been nice to explore a greater array of locations, but a talented team of artists clearly put a lot of work into making each of these areas distinct and diverse.

If you're arachnophobic, this battle is sure to give you an adrenaline rush.

If you’re arachnophobic, this battle is sure to give you an adrenaline rush.

Unfortunately, you won’t encounter a good variety of enemies during your adventure. Stormtroopers, mechanical spiders, and big robots with big shields make up the bulk of your battles. The good news is that the action is fun and sometimes even challenging, despite your ability to regenerate health by avoiding attacks for a short while. In the original, to swing your saber, you waved around the remote, which was both imprecise and unappealing. Now, you slash by tapping the A button, and motions are reserved for your most powerful moves. If you string together enough combos, you can slash the remote to perform a flashy saber attack. Thrusting the nunchuk forward Force-pushes enemies out of your way. Intuitive combinations of buttons and motions allow you to zap your foes with Force lightning, use Force grip to toss foes into the abyss beneath, and repel nearby ugnaughts with a shock wave. The camera, a major annoyance in the original, rarely gets in the way in the sequel, and responsive controls allow you to smoothly string moves together. An abundance of special effects and destructible environments further enhance the excitement of slicing and zapping jumptroopers–as does a move you earn later in the game that allows you to annihilate multiple enemies in slow motion.

Some noncombat activities mix up the pace, though these aren’t wholly successful. The occasional puzzle sequences are easy but offer a pleasant breather in the midst of the action. The platforming, on the other hand, isn’t consistently rewarding. A jumping puzzle in which you must pay attention to your mirror image is a clever detour. On the other hand, an early platforming sequence in which the camera constantly shifts positions mid-jump is infuriating. In one level, you must dash across a walkway, but if you enter the bridge in the middle of a jump, the floor will crumble away beneath you without warning, sentencing you to a painful death. There are a number of similar “gotcha” moments, so you may find yourself running into a deadly laser beam due to the game’s failure to communicate. Happily, the creative boss fights help pick up the slack. A battle against an oversized metal arachnid is one such encounter; it requires you to use Force grip to rotate giant rings and, later, to manipulate a set of switches before you can damage it using your slow-motion rage. The fights are a good length but are never tedious, and they keep the tempo moving by changing camera angles, requiring you to influence the environment in various ways, and generally keeping you on the move.

Tatooine plays host to dual suns and dual sabers.

Tatooine plays host to dual suns and dual sabers.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II also features local multiplayer ripped right from the Super Smash Bros. playbook. It isn’t bad as unoriginal recipes go, letting each of four players select a character and leap around and duke it out in two dimensions. Each character possesses his or her own strengths and weaknesses, as you might expect. Darth Vader’s saber slashes are powerful, but he’s not very agile; Starkiller is a good all-rounder but not strong in one particular area; and Proxy can transform into any other character, but he’s incredibly weak in his conventional form. In addition, you can perform a couple of different special moves, one of which is activated by flinging the nunchuk. Environmental hazards, such as the giant creature called the gorog waving his arms about, lend a touch of unpredictability to battle, though none of these hazards have the cleverness of Smash Bros.’ best levels–nor are the animations and collision detection very tight. Attacks often appear to go right through your opponent without doing any damage, for example.

Multiplayer balancing and other issues aside, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II is a good step forward for a series that didn’t shine in its previous outing. It’s a shame the adventure doesn’t last; while it’s lengthier than the other versions, you will still finish in around six hours. Nevertheless, the snazzy swashbuckling can be electrifying, due in part to a responsive control scheme that utilizes motion in obvious but gratifying ways, making you feel like a mighty Jedi Knight. The clumsy moments prove that this franchise still has plenty of room to grow, but that shouldn’t keep you from giving yourself over to the power of the Force.

By Kevin VanOrd

NHL Slapshot Review

Sharp controls and an ingenious hockey-stick peripheral make NHL Slapshot a great arcade hockey game.

The Good

  • Miniature hockey stick peripheral makes for great controls
  • Loose, fun arcade hockey gameplay
  • Excellent Peewee to Pro career mode
  • Attractive visuals and atmospheric sound.

The Bad

  • Too arcade oriented for hockey fans looking for a rigorous simulation
  • Limited modes of play, and no online support at all.

It comes with a big plastic hockey stick. OK, there are a lot of other observations you could make about NHL Slapshot right off the top. Most notably, the game brings Wayne Gretzky back to a hockey game for the first time in a few years. But nothing about this EA Sports Wii exclusive stands out as much as the fact that you play with the remote and nunchuk crammed into a black contraption that sort of looks like a real hockey stick. Of course, this makes the game sound awfully gimmicky, which it kind of is, especially given its status as the little brother of the more realistic and full-featured NHL 11 available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. But this Wii game is also a whole lot of fun. Accurate motion-sensing controls can tell the difference between a slapshot and a body check. An arcade-first feel makes this the ideal hockey game for the whole family. And the range of gameplay options includes a fantastic Peewee to Pro mode that lets you take a tyke all the way from a backyard rink to the show. While there might not be enough depth here to satisfy serious hockey nuts, this is a great arcade game for all ages.

It may be somewhat geared for kids, but the Peewee to Pro game in NHL Slapshot is fun for all ages.

It may be somewhat geared for kids, but the Peewee to Pro game in NHL Slapshot is fun for all ages.

At first glance, however, NHL Slapshot looks like a cut-down version of NHL 11. All of the game options have been trimmed back. You can get into one-off games, journey through full seasons, play for the Stanley Cup, indulge in minigames, and even take on a career mode called Peewee to Pro, but there is no way to be the GM of a club, no Ultimate Team feature, and no online play at all. The game emphasizes a kid-friendly approach. Opening videos show Wayne Gretzky playing minor hockey, and then junior with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and then pro with the Edmonton Oilers. All of the instructional videos lean toward the preteen set, too, with nothing but clips of kids playing on backyard rinks. It’s all pretty cute and well done, but at the same time, the limited feature set comes off as chintzy.

After playing for a while, you won’t care about the skimpy game options. The controls really make NHL Slapshot something special. A big part of this is the hockey stick peripheral that ships with the game. It’s a cheap-looking contraption, a hollow plastic shell with a foam rubber stick blade sticking out of the bottom of it. At first glance, it looks like some weird gun or slingshot. It’s only after you wedge the Wii Remote into the middle of the stick and the nunchuk into the top that you start to appreciate the whole innovative setup. Essentially, the stick controller allows you to control the game as if you have a real hockey stick. You take it in both hands, with the lower near the buttons of the remote and the upper with your thumb on the nunchuk’s stick. From there, all movements are pretty intuitive. To skate, you use the nunchuk stick. To shoot, you move the whole hockey stick, flicking forward for a wrist shot and winding up and then pushing forward for a slapper. Passing is done with quick taps of the A button, and you can deke by either moving the stick or hitting the B button. Hitting and poke-checking are handled by either shoving the hockey stick forward in a cross-checking motion or pushing the stick forward as if you were trying to spear somebody.

Wayne Gretzky is your guide throughout the journey to the pros.

Wayne Gretzky is your guide throughout the journey to the pros.

That might sound awkward and even a little complicated, but it’s not. The controls feel totally natural after no more than five minutes of play. All of the controls are also incredibly responsive. When you want to shoot, you shoot. When you want to hit somebody, you hit somebody. Manual deking is a touch finicky because it’s too easy to accidentally take a wrist shot when trying to just slip past a defender. EA has obviously considered this, though, and included B-button deking so you don’t have to bother doing it manually. It’s also a little too easy to accidentally hit the A button when winding up for a shot, which instead results in having you pass the puck toward the net. Other than that, everything is finely tuned. The only drawback is that you need a fair bit of room to swing the hockey stick, especially if you’re playing with a friend. Without a lot of space in a pretty big living room, you’ll undoubtedly wind up clocking each other with your sticks and maybe wind up in a real hockey brawl.

Sharp controls and an ingenious hockey-stick peripheral make NHL Slapshot a great arcade hockey game.

The Good

  • Miniature hockey stick peripheral makes for great controls
  • Loose, fun arcade hockey gameplay
  • Excellent Peewee to Pro career mode
  • Attractive visuals and atmospheric sound.

The Bad

  • Too arcade oriented for hockey fans looking for a rigorous simulation
  • Limited modes of play, and no online support at all.

Gameplay on the ice in NHL Slapshot is a touch simplified when compared to what you might find in the game’s big brother, NHL 11. Everything here has been geared more for quick arcade fun than an actual simulation of real hockey. So pacing is a little faster, opposition a little lighter, and scoring a little easier. Oh, and there is no fighting. Most aspects of the game have been relaxed to accommodate the controls. So you can pull off moves like bone-rattling checks even if you’re actually a split second off when lining up the opposing player. The AI is also pretty sharp, although the game is geared more to solo exploits than pretty playmaking. Playing locked to a position can be a little frustrating, as your linemates often come off like puck hogs. Shooting is the only part of the game that is rigorously modeled. You need to aim your shots precisely with the nunchuk stick to have a chance at scoring, even in high-flying peewee and bantam games where your linemates sometimes seem to be able to touch the twine at will. All in all, this loose style of play fits the unique controller perfectly, as it would be tough to make this kind of twitch-game gimmick work well with a demanding sim.

Sharp controls, thanks to the hockey stick peripheral, help bring NHL action to life.

Sharp controls, thanks to the hockey stick peripheral, help bring NHL action to life.

Modes of play aren’t quite as simplistic as they first seem, either. Peewee to Pro is an outstanding if offbeat take on the Be a Pro option in NHL 11, where you take a scrub from junior to NHL stardom. Here, you start off as a little kid playing three-on-three hockey in an outdoor rink under the tutelage of Gretzky himself. It’s not nearly as elaborate as Be a Pro, but it’s still pretty impressive. You gain experience points for things like great hits, smart passes, and goals then use them after the game to buff offense, defense, and athletic skill categories. These get more involved as you move up the ladder to the better leagues, too. You start with just the three catch-all categories, which are easy to max out by the end of a peewee season, and then move on to multiple classes in each. So you no longer just assign experience points to a generic “offense.” Instead you have to choose to put points toward a wide range of specific talents, like shooting, stickhandling, controlling the puck, making accurate slapshots, and so forth. Completing on-ice objectives earns you boosts to these categories, improving the many specific skills. If you hit a target for something like assists, for instance, you unlock boosts that then enhance your passing skill. You can also choose from a wide variety of sticks, including Gretzky’s famous Titan model from the 1980s.

Much of the look and feel of NHL Slapshot is reminiscent of NHL 11, with everything dialled down a few notches. Graphics are generally excellent, with sharp player faces and animations that roll out smoothly and realistically. You’ll never confuse the game for a TV broadcast, but it still looks really good and includes little broadcast touches like close-ups of players jostling and jawing after whistles. Audio is sprinkled with great atmospheric touches like car-horn honks after goals and parents shouting encouragement in peewee and bantam games outdoors. But it isn’t so hot when you move into indoor action because the crowd seems subdued and the commentary of announcers Gary Thorne and Bill Clement has been cut down to generic jabber. The soundtrack features mostly the same lineup of songs as NHL 11, a bland conglomeration of indie hard rock like Bullet for My Valentine and Danko Jones alongside ancient arena tunes. The latter includes such ditties as Europe’s soul-crushing “The Final Countdown,” the awful “Ole” song played at Montreal Canadians games, and a castrated version of The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” that drops the “shoot” part of the “shoot ‘em in the back now” lyric.

Wayne hasn't worn these duds in a very long time.

Wayne hasn’t worn these duds in a very long time.

Although you might be tempted to dismiss NHL Slapshot as a lesser, kiddie knockoff of NHL 11 geared for the Wii’s younger demographic, don’t be too quick to rate it as an also-ran. This is a great arcade hockey game with unique controls that is an absolute blast to play with a friend (who should bring his own stick since only one is included with the game) or when you just want to experience something completely different from traditional gamepad hockey.

By Brett Todd

Lost in Shadow Review

Poor pacing almost derails this imaginative platformer, but a variety of clever puzzles in the second half of the game make it worth sticking with to the end.

The Good

  • Hopping on shadows forces you to view the world in new ways
  • Clever puzzles make excellent use of the core mechanics
  • Rousing boss fights provide a dose of excitement
  • Tons of content that is largely good.

The Bad

  • Uneven pacing leads to long stretches of boredom
  • Basic combat is a drag.

Lost in Shadow is a prime example of the idea that you can have too much of a good thing. The majority of this thoughtful twist on side-scrolling platformers is bursting with imaginative puzzles and heart-racing boss fights and is held together by a visual gimmick that forces you to view the world in an entirely new way. But a third of this lengthy adventure is mired in pointless battles and mundane puzzles, and it takes all of your determination to push past the mediocrity to reach the transcendent sections later on. Having to put up with so many bland moments sounds immediately off-putting, and it can be difficult to trudge through the uninspired middle hours when the end is nowhere in sight. But Lost in Shadow’s finer moments are so rewarding that anyone who perseveres will be treated to an experience that stands tall next to just about any other game in the genre. There’s no doubt that had those forgettable portions been left on the cutting-room floor this would be a must-play for any fan of puzzle platformers. But Lost in Shadow instead mixes the sublime with the ordinary–a very good game in serious need of a trimming.

Shadow platforms are a man’s best friend.

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The adventure begins with your character, a young child, at his lowest point. He’s tossed from the top of a tower to the cold rocks down below, separating his corporeal body from his shadow. Playing as his shadow, you must brave the dangerous enemies and obstacles spread throughout the tower as you make your way back to the roof to fight the monster that started this misery. The story stays in the background for the most part, allowing the bleak world to paint a feeling of desperation, but there are some clever touches that supply worthwhile motivation. There are scattered memories hidden about that supply an insight into your situation. The message may be a brief remark about the painful nature of existing as a shadow or a wish that this would all end soon, and these help you establish an emotional connection to the world.

Controlling a shadow feels different that controlling a more conventional character. The levels are laid out in typical side-scrolling fashion, but instead of leaping across platforms, you jump on the shadows they cast. The initial sections force you to adjust to this strange perspective, and once the basic foundation is laid, there are all sorts of clever twists to keep you on your toes. In addition to your standard jump, you have a few more tools for interacting with the environment. The first is adjusting the angle of the light. At times, a light bar appears onscreen, and by moving the slider, you control where shadows are cast. In its simplest form, this lets you shift a platform to the side so you can make a jump, or raise it up so you can climb on a ledge, and this premise is expanded as you go deeper into the game. During one section, you swing a lightbulb in the foreground that sways back and forth with dwindling momentum. You have to time your jumps when the shadow platforms are reachable, and figuring out the timing provides excitement and challenge.

Shadow enemies pack quite a punch.

Shadow enemies pack quite a punch.

Other times, you have to directly manipulate an object in the foreground. Rotating a pillar or wheel lets you reach previously inaccessible places, but this technique has one minor flaw. The only way to know which objects can be manipulated is by pointing at the screen while holding down B. More often than not, when you’re seemingly stuck with no clue how to move on, your best chance of success is to slowly scan the environment until you find an object you can interact with. Shifting objects to create shadows you can stand on is always impressive to behold, but the pacing slows down when you have to scan the screen. For half of the game, the puzzles are built around these two concepts, and ministages within levels contain a third technique that relies on perspective distortion rather than shadow creation. In these sections, you rotate the entire screen in 90-degree chunks. It’s a marvel to see the world swing around you, causing platforms and ladders to materialize out of nowhere. A wide variety of puzzles types incorporate these three basic moves, but variations on these themes stretch on for around 15 hours, which causes the initial excitement to fade away as by-rote advancement becomes the norm.

Thankfully, things pick up later in the game when you finally learn a new move. Halfway through Lost in Shadow you gain the ability to run along the foreground in certain spots, and this meshes so wonderfully with the shadow hopping that the game reaches impressive heights. Whereas you become accustomed to staring at the backgrounds in the first half of the game, once you learn this new technique, you have to take in the foreground and background at the same time, opening the door for some fascinating sequences. There are traps and dangers lurking all around, and you have to push the boundaries of your spatial reasoning to figure out how to continue. It’s a shame it takes more than a dozen hours before Lost in Shadow reaches its potential, but the ending portions are so good that it’s worth going through the less impressive early parts to get there. However, even when the game is at its best there are still a couple of problems. First of all, there is no map. This makes sense initially since discovery is such a large part of the game. But the big levels require a lot of backtracking, so if a map kept track of where you have ventured, it would save a lot of trouble when you’re trying to find the one place you haven’t been. Second, the checkpoint system is far too punishing. You can lose 15 or more minutes of your hard work if you die, which is as deflating as it gets.

You don't always have to play as a shadow.

You don’t always have to play as a shadow.

There’s a bit more to Lost in Shadow than solving puzzles. You pick up a sword early in the adventure, and from that moment until the very end, you have to dispose of the annoying enemies who stand in your way. The combat is not fun in the slightest. You have a three-hit combo and that’s it. No special moves, no block, and no dodge. And though the sluggish controls are fine for the slow-paced platforming, they aren’t quick enough to let you move out of the way of a fast attack. Thankfully, although dealing with the normal enemies are a chore, there are moments when the combat really shines. Some enemies can be killed only by environmental hazards, and figuring out how to finish them off is just as engaging as any other puzzle in the game. Furthermore, the boss fights are about avoiding confrontation. Sprinting through levels with a demonic beast on your tail is the only time your adrenaline kicks in, and it’s challenging fun to wind your way through these levels at a breakneck speed.

Uneven pacing is the biggest flaw in this otherwise enthralling adventure. Lost in Shadow can stretch on for more than 30 hours, and the majority of the experience is quite well done. The first few hours are new and exciting, brimming with all sorts of possibilities as you figure out this crazy shadow world. And the second half, after you learn your final technique, is bursting with mind-bending puzzles that are a pleasure to overcome. But there is a roughly 10-hour stretch smack-dab in the middle of your journey that is never out-and-out bad, but has so many predictable puzzles and tedious battles that it’s a serious chore to get through. It’s hard to give Lost in Shadow a wholehearted recommendation, because it requires such a serious commitment, so make sure you don’t rush in expecting uninterrupted fun. But if you do stick with Lost in Shadow, you’ll be treated to a memorable game whose good moments far outshine the bad.

By Tom Mc Shea

Project Zero 2: Wii Edition Review

Project Zero 2: Wii Edition is a bleak, nasty horror game that scares every step of the way.

The Good

  • Rich atmosphere that heightens tension
  • Shocks are timed with Hitchcockian precision
  • Excellent use of the remote speaker
  • Defeating tough enemies produces overwhelming relief.

The Bad

  • Haunted House mode is tacky
  • Camera’s roving eye adds unneeded ick factor.

UK REVIEW–Project Zero 2 is a remake of the disturbing Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, and it might be one of the Wii’s finest retreads–it’s certainly one of its scariest. Nintendo isn’t averse to a touch of horror, but Project Zero 2 is a far cry from the excesses of Resident Evil, and even the Lovecraftian menace of Eternal Darkness. Instead, it offers something altogether bleaker: a brutally intense and unsettling tale of ritualistic sacrifice, murder, and tormented spirits. The game is unrelentingly grisly to the point where you’d be hard pressed to say it’s enjoyable to play, but it’s incredibly gripping and genuinely frightening.

Ghosts are no match for Mio’s pro-photography skills.

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The narrative setup is fairly well-worn in the horror genre: twin sisters Mio and Mayu find themselves in an abandoned village with a mysterious secret that must be solved before they can escape. The two are separated, and though Mayu frequently appears to her sister, she always seems to be out of reach. While everything about the place should set off a warning alarm telling her to turn and run, Mio blindly follows her sibling, stumbling into a series of terrifying encounters with the wandering spirits that haunt the village.

It’s a disturbing place even before the ghosts show up–a dilapidated, dimly lit settlement of cramped interiors and sinuous pathways. As in the original game, the fear factor is slow to build, the game holding back the shocks and ratcheting up the tension to near-unbearable levels.

Where the original used static camera angles, this adopts Fatal Frame IV’s over-the-shoulder perspective, restricting you to an incredibly narrow field of view that only heightens the sensation that something terrible lies just out of sight. It also includes the exquisitely nerve-racking “touch” mechanic from the same game, where you have to hold the A button to have Mio gradually extend her arm to pick up an item, open a drawer, or lift an object to discover what’s underneath. A further carryover is the sporadic appearance of a spectral hand, which will occasionally grab Mio’s arm: these moments might seem like cheap jolts next to the constant atmosphere of creeping dread, but they’re used infrequent enough so as not to undermine the scares when they do arrive.

Glowing objects are always helpful, though you'll take damage if you're grabbed by the ghostly hand.

Glowing objects are always helpful, though you’ll take damage if you’re grabbed by the ghostly hand.

Indeed, basic actions like opening doors or peering around corners are transformed by a more dynamic camera, which leans in closer, sometimes tugging you over Mio’s shoulder to a near first-person perspective, forcing you into rooms before the character you’re controlling. That the vast majority of the time there’s nothing there only makes the surprises more potent. It’s quite an achievement to turn the simple act of holding a button into a test of nerve: the game dares you to be brave and then provokes a genuine sensation of relief when nothing emerges.

It’s not long before they do, mind you. Many of the ghosts have backstories, their tales sketched out through discarded notes and fragments of diary entries: tragic, but no less frightening. Some ghosts drop spirit stones in which their thoughts are vocalised; you can slot them into a strange radio and hear their wails through the remote’s speaker, the tinny sound quality only making them more unnerving. Others are even scarier, unexplained horrors that float, stumble, and lurch unnaturally toward you, limbs and faces horribly contorted.

Of course, the wonderfully sadistic idea at the heart of the game’s systems is that you’re actively encouraged to let these malevolent spirits get as close as possible. The camera obscura you wield deals damage as it captures their image, with collectable lenses and upgrades allowing you to temporarily stun or push back your ectoplasmic aggressors. You inflict significant damage when the shutter flashes red for a fatal frame, while bonuses are awarded for snapping two and three ghosts simultaneously.

Project Zero 2: Wii Edition is a bleak, nasty horror game that scares every step of the way.

The Good

  • Rich atmosphere that heightens tension
  • Shocks are timed with Hitchcockian precision
  • Excellent use of the remote speaker
  • Defeating tough enemies produces overwhelming relief.

The Bad

  • Haunted House mode is tacky
  • Camera’s roving eye adds unneeded ick factor.

While the floating numbers and text remind you this is just a game, they never sap the intensity of these encounters. That’s partly down to the very deliberate awkwardness of the controls, which regularly prove uncomfortable. Aiming requires a combination of the nunchuk’s analog stick and tilts of the remote, which may sound clumsy, and in practice it often is. Yet it’s an artful clumsiness, designed to make combat more difficult and thus more unsettling. If the camera obscura were an SLR, then you’d breeze through encounters; here, the controls fit the fiction and serve the game’s systems well.

Spirit points from defeated enemies can be spent on enhancements to the camera's range, power, and shutter speed.

Spirit points from defeated enemies can be spent on enhancements to the camera’s range, power, and shutter speed.

And just as you grow accustomed to negotiating combat scenarios without too much difficulty, the game disempowers you further. You’re rid of your torch, forced to explore rooms lit only by the occasional lightning flash and the faint glow of a single lantern. Ghosts begin to move faster, and then suddenly disappear, teleporting behind you. The inclusion of a quick turn is welcome, though it’s still startling to whirl around, raise your camera, and instantly witness a screaming face filling your viewfinder.

Most chapters find new ways to terrify. You encounter deadly spirits that can’t be harmed by the camera, forcing you to flee. You’re teased with images of rooms you’re about to visit, steeling you for the horrors that inevitably lie in wait. One particularly disturbing set piece sees you suddenly surrounded by corpses while a ghost shrieks with laughter before an invincible spirit with a deathly touch forces you to flee. That Mio runs at the pace that most game characters walk only makes your escape more fraught. Other moments offer subtler scares: there’s a masterful fourth-wall-breaking sequence that puts you in a room with an old projector–the Wii’s disc drive whirring in time with the spinning reel–and suddenly stopping as the film ends. Along with the voices of the spirits floating from the TV to the remote’s speaker, it can sometimes feel that the horror is seeping into the real world.

If the Wii version is mostly an improvement on the original game, it does suffer in other areas. The perspective shift can result in camera problems in narrow spaces, and while Nintendo has put laudable effort into localising the game for a European audience, the British voices aren’t a great fit for the Japanese setting. The performances are also a little flat compared with recent translations like The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles. And though the game works hard to make you feel uneasy, the revealing attire of its 15-year-old protagonist and the camera’s willingness to highlight her flimsy clothes is the wrong kind of uncomfortable.

You frequently have to fight several ghosts at once, so it's crucial to find a spot where you're not surrounded.

You frequently have to fight several ghosts at once, so it’s crucial to find a spot where you’re not surrounded.

The only other notable addition is a new Haunted House mode, an on-rails scare ride that sees you exploring a series of locations unlocked by playing through the campaign. You might be asked to take pictures of spirits or simply remain calm in the face of some rather corny jump-shocks by keeping the remote still before being judged on your performance or stoicism. It’s essentially a rather brazen copy of the Ju-On game, and while it’s fleetingly entertaining, it’s not a mode you’ll revisit too often.

Thankfully, the story is more than worth the price of admission, and it’s a reminder why horror games can be so intoxicating. Break Project Zero 2 down to its base mechanics, and you’re left with something that is by turns awkward and embarrassingly simplistic: its puzzles are rudimentary, and it’s as linear as games can get. But its claustrophobic atmosphere and masterful sense of pacing generate a pervasive sense of dread that immerses and consumes you. At one point, you come across a room with bloody handprints on the adjacent wall and smeared across the door, not wanting to enter, but knowing you have to. It’s these excruciating moments of anxious anticipation that make Project Zero 2 one of the scariest experiences you’ll encounter in any medium.

By Chris Schilling

Major League Baseball 2K10 Review

This bare-bones baseball game doesn’t do nearly enough to improve upon its predecessor.

The Good

  • Mostly realistic plays in the field after the crack of the bat
  • Vibrant stadium sounds, complete with cheers and taunts.

The Bad

  • Simplistic pitcher-batter duel
  • Horrible visuals, especially when it comes to stadium art
  • No support for online features like multiplayer and updated rosters.

None of the improvements seen in Major League Baseball on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this year made it over to the Nintendo Wii. This game has virtually nothing in common with its console siblings save the soundtrack, with developer 2K China forgoing all of the new features, such as the headlining My Player Career mode that lets you take a scrub to stardom. Reasonably good game mechanics, as well as OK-but-unnecessary Wii Remote motion-sensing controls for hitting and pitching, make this a passable excursion onto big-league diamonds only if you don’t have last year’s game or don’t own either of the other current-generation consoles.

The motion controls work well, just like they did last year.

The motion controls work well, just like they did last year.

None of the other version’ big new additions are here. My Player, the franchise’s answer to the captivating Road to the Show mode of play that has been the centerpiece of the Sony-only rival MLB: The Show series, is nowhere to be found, nor is the MLB Today addition that lets you play through the current big-league season as it takes place. So you get more or less the same experience here as you had a year ago with MLB 2K9. Modes of play include the tried-and-true Season, Franchise, Tournament, and Home-run Derby, along with the ability to stage manage set challenges, like coming back from a deficit in the seventh inning or getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the ninth.

Earning tokens and using cash are the only somewhat interesting frills, but they haven’t changed noticeably since last year. Tokens are earned for in-game achievements that range from accomplishing one-off feats like recording three straight hits all the way to winning the World Series and can be then used to unlock goodies. These include classic MLB uniforms (well, if you call the likes of the Angels’ polyester duds from the ’70s “classic”) and parks, such as the late–definitely not great–Olympic Stadium in Montreal. There aren’t many good rewards here, however, and tokens can be earned so easily that you seem to get them for just stepping onto the field without getting hauled into congress to answer questions about steroid use. You also acquire them when simming. Whenever you feel like stocking up on tokens and going on a spending spree, all you need to do is sim through a season or two with a good team like the Yankees or Phillies. Cash is a little more useful. It can be used to buy Inside Edge scouting reports that your catchers utilize to call pitches and locations that target hitter weaknesses, which deepens the pitcher-batter duel that is the heart of baseball.

Hitting the field doesn’t offer many surprises, although what does stand out is generally bad. The ugly visuals strike you first. Player and stadium art is as jagged as saw blades, barely resembling their real-life inspirations. Much of the art is so off that it resembles unlicensed hack jobs done up to look sort of like the real thing–but not really–so that nobody winds up getting hauled into court. This is really noticeable in the ballparks, which generally seem to have one key feature like the ivy at Wrigley Field and the big sign towering over left center in new Yankee Stadium rendered relatively accurately. And then, there are a bunch of generic accoutrements tossed in to round things off. So there isn’t a whole lot of big-league atmosphere. Audio is somewhat better, with stadium sounds that are ear catching and diverse. This includes a good array of team-specific cheers and catcalls. Commentary is limited, and while the play-by-play does a good job of keeping you in touch with the basics, it lacks color. The eclectic soundtrack includes everything from the sludgy rock of the Black Crowes to the old-school rap of the Sugarhill Gang, so perhaps the best thing to say about it is that there’s something for everybody…even if the mix of tunes is about as jarring to the ear as a car alarm going off at four in the morning

A lot of balls get thrown straight down the pipe.

A lot of balls get thrown straight down the pipe.

Game mechanics in MLB 2K10 similarly blend good and bad. Hitting is handled by swinging the remote and holding buttons if you want to try for the fences, keep the ball on the ground, lay down a bunt, or check your swing. Pitching sees you choosing a pitch type with the nunchuk, picking a location with the remote, and then flicking the remote at the screen when a bull’s-eye target shrinks to green. Both work well as they did last year and allow for precise control on the mound, as well as in the batter’s box…at least if you’re willing to put your wrists through the wringer with all that flicking and twitching. Last year, the motion sensing still seemed like a smart changeup from the usual gamepad controls. Now, a year later with no changes whatsoever, it’s hard not to wonder if they couldn’t have been improved in some way. You’re not really mimicking an actual swing or mock throwing a ball, and the pitcher-batter duel is an awfully simplistic one where a lot of balls get chucked down the pipe, so you wonder what the point is of all the carpal tunnel damage. Arcade-y stuff like this can be handled just as adroitly with a gamepad.

Action out on the diamond is quite realistic, though. Plays in the field are realistic for the most part, and even the fielders seem believably human here. They make errors, can’t throw laser beams to first from their knees way down the third-base line, and even sometimes knock each other down when scrambling during plays at first or when converging on shallow pop flies. Once ball leaves bat, you never know what you’re going to get, which gives games that great “anything can happen” atmosphere when playing or watching the real deal.

If a Nintendo Wii is your only gaming console, then MLB 2K10 might satisfy those inevitable baseball cravings that are always roused by the arrival of spring for a time. But this is still a lacklustre, paint-by-numbers effort that does little more than provide Wii owners with the option to buy a new baseball game this year. Considering that so much effort was put into overhauling the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game, it’s disappointing that 2K chose to just tread water with the Wii this time out.

By Brett Todd

Disney Epic Mickey Review

Tedium and monotony overwhelm Mickey’s new adventure, smothering its clever use of the Disney license.

The Good

  • Clever implementation of the Disney license
  • Element of choice leads to some welcome unpredictability.

The Bad

  • Imprecise controls and an awful camera
  • Repetitive and frustrating combat
  • Tedious objectives lack originality
  • Little direction throughout the adventure
  • Repeatedly replaying boring levels isn’t fun.

Disneyland has the slogan, “The happiest place on earth,” but you won’t find much joy in Mickey’s adventure through this Magic Kingdom. This evocative trip through Disney’s hallowed history offers clever twists to the characters and imagery that have become ingrained in the popular consciousness, but these artistic touches are not enough to salvage the rest of the dour experience. A number of fundamental design flaws derail this colorful adventure before it ever has a chance to get going. Sloppy controls and a woeful camera continually stand in the way of your progress, but it’s the preponderance of dull objectives that smothers any whiff of enjoyment. It just isn’t fun to play Epic Mickey; even though the thoughtful story and imaginative visuals do their best to urge you along, it’s not worth trudging through the uninspired and frustrating set pieces to get there. Epic Mickey uses nostalgia to suck you into this world, but its reliance on antiquated gameplay makes it a difficult game to endure.

The power of paint compels you.

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Mickey has made a terrible mistake. Among all of the characters that have been created in Disney’s illustrious history, a few of them have fallen to irrelevance along the way. These forgotten critters have retired to The Wasteland–a retirement home of sorts where characters from yesteryear exist far away from the outside world. But that darned mouse couldn’t leave well enough alone. He spilled ink into this world one fateful day, drowning its citizens in a sea of black that ruined their peaceful existence. This is not a happy story, and the characters you meet along the way embody their decades of neglect in striking ways. It is this story that provides the strongest reason to experience Epic Mickey because it not only circumvents what you would expect from a Disney product, but it also provides heartfelt moments. The visuals suffer from low-resolution textures, but the artistic touches are certainly there. From the shabbily constructed Ventureland where sad pirates live out their existences to the neon bright Tomorrow Land, each area has its own personality.

It’s just a shame that the gameplay in this 3D platformer doesn’t do justice to this insightful look at Disney’s history. You run and jump in a sluggish manner, so even though you eventually get where you want to go, there is no joy to the movement. The one element in Mickey’s repertoire that separates Epic Mickey from other games in the genre is a magic paintbrush that has the power to create or destroy specific objects. This is a neat idea and does lead to a number of interesting situations. For instance, you can remove a piece of a mountain to find hidden treasure inside or paint a bridge to cross a dangerous lake. But even though this feature is used well at times, there isn’t nearly enough freedom in how you use it. You can only interact with specific objects, and it’s not always clear what you can and cannot spray. More troubling is the lack of permanence. Every time you exit and reenter an area, all of your hard work is erased, so even if you paint every object into existence, it disappears as soon as you leave the screen. Furthermore, your aiming cursor isn’t always accurate, which means you have to line up your shot multiple times before the ink hits the right spot. Thus, this cool concept loses its impact as soon as you realize its limitations.

A gorilla boxing a robot: now that's entertainment.

A gorilla boxing a robot: now that’s entertainment.

Unfortunately, Mickey’s magic paintbrush is the only gameplay element that is even marginally unique. The rest of the game is a retread of countless games that have come before it. Your objectives are particularly stale. In each location you visit, there are characters you talk to who give you tasks to complete. But these boil down to tired fetch quests that are incredibly dull and time consuming. For instance, to help a pirate find true love, you have to travel from Ventureland and Ozland to the Mean Streets and then back to Ozland before you finally return to Ventureland where you complete your quest. While you dutifully walk from place to place, there aren’t any fun jumping sequences or interesting battles, either; you just walk until you find the correct item and then return. And that’s how much of Epic Mickey plays out. Its lifeless experience is further hampered by the bland 2D platforming levels between each section. The first time you play one of these stages, it’s a treat because it looks like an old Disney cartoon. But the level design and controls are so stuck in the past and the collision detection is so poor that they aren’t any fun to play, and once you slog through the same level a half-dozen times, you’ll wish you could skip these portions entirely.

Tedium and monotony overwhelm Mickey’s new adventure, smothering its clever use of the Disney license.

The Good

  • Clever implementation of the Disney license
  • Element of choice leads to some welcome unpredictability.

The Bad

  • Imprecise controls and an awful camera
  • Repetitive and frustrating combat
  • Tedious objectives lack originality
  • Little direction throughout the adventure
  • Repeatedly replaying boring levels isn’t fun.

When you’re not traipsing from one point to the next, there is combat to take part in, but this has issues as well. You can perform a spin attack to stun your ink-blob foes, but you need to use your brush to finish the job. Mickey has the choice to either convert enemies to his side by spraying them with paint or dissolve them with thinner, but this option isn’t as simple as it sounds. Certain enemies cannot be converted at all, which removes any tactical element. But even if you just use thinner all the time, combat still isn’t any fun. You have to spray an enemy for quite a while before you defeat it, which is not only tedious, but its downright annoying when a bunch of enemies are chasing you down and you need to fight them all at once. Battles consist of you running around and spraying anything that moves while you desperately try to get the camera to focus on what you want.

At least the 2D sections look neat.

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The decision of how to deal with enemies is a choice that has an impact on how the story pans out. Mickey can either be an upstanding mouse who tries to save the inhabitants of Wasteland, or a mean-spirited rodent who uses thinner to make everything disappear permanently. It’s in the boss fights that this concept is pushed to the forefront. Depending on how you finish the job, you can gain a valuable ally or banish your foe into the ether. Although the binary decision making is a concept that stays on the backburner most of the time because it doesn’t have a big impact during the majority of your adventure, it still makes battles a bit more unpredictable than they would have been otherwise. Your face off against Captain Hook is particularly noteworthy, and it’s moments such as these that make you appreciate the care that went into bringing the lore of Disney to life.

But the little touches here and there are not enough to lift Epic Mickey up to a respectable level. Problems layer on top of problems, creating a suffocating atmosphere that makes it hard to see the good stuff that lies ahead of you. The puzzles that crop up are just as maddening as the other elements that come before them. During one such conundrum, you have to align paintings in a proper order. But the directions are so vague that you’ll spend minutes wandering around, trying to figure out what you need to do before you can even begin to work out the solution. And that’s one of the biggest problems that crops up all throughout this adventure: lack of direction. You always feel slightly lost in Epic Mickey because the game does such a poor job of explaining where you need to go next. Once you enter a new area, you wander around until you happen upon the solution to whatever was halting your progress. For instance, in the aforementioned pirate love quest, you need to collect flowers. But they are only a few pixels wide, and you have no idea where they are hidden within the city you’re wandering through. Just about every quest vaguely points you a direction and expects you to know what you to do and it’s a serious pain figuring out what the game expects from you.

Monsters get angry when you spray paint in their mouth.

Monsters get angry when you spray paint in their mouth.

Epic Mickey has so many issues that once you overcome one thing there are a half dozen more problems beating you down. Imprecise controls and boring objectives make progress a chore, and a troublesome camera ensures you won’t even be able to see where you need to go a lot of the time. It’s a shame the gameplay is so frustrating in Epic Mickey because the story and visuals do give you a solid incentive to play. But it’s just not worth the effort. Every gameplay scenario is fraught with problems, and there are very few good moments to look forward to after enduring all the lousy parts. Epic Mickey shows that even a good implementation of a cherished license can’t overcome an abundance of fundamental design flaws.

By Tom Mc Shea

Top Spin 4 Review

Terrible motion controls and poor visuals sap all the fun out of this poor excuse for a tennis game.

The Good

  • Wide range of professional players and courts.

The Bad

  • Unresponsive motion controls
  • Blocky models and environments
  • Stilted animation
  • Repetitive minigames in Career mode.

Top Spin 4 tries to bridge the gap between arcade fun and in-depth tennis simulation. Sadly, this has resulted in a number of compromises that make it unappealing to fans of either. Its career mode and character development are shallow, focusing more on repetitive minigames than on tournament play. The visuals are poor, making each match look like a blocky mess, while an erratic frame rate makes animations jerky and unrealistic. Worst of all, the controls are unresponsive and often fail to register your swings, resulting in frustrating matches that you often win by dumb luck, rather than your skill with a Wii Remote.

Building up a rally is tricky when the controls don’t respond.

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A minimal tutorial introduces you to the basics of serving and returning the ball. You move your character around using the nunchuk, while your other hand swings the Wii Remote to launch shots. By swinging from the bottom of your body to the top, you perform flat shots. Doing the opposite performs slices, while swinging horizontally performs top spins. Holding down either the B, Z, or C buttons while swinging unleashes lobs, drop shots, and fast dashes toward the net. Though the tutorial explains what each shot does, it doesn’t show how to use them in context, so unless you’re clued up on tennis tactics, you won’t know the best time to perform a cheeky drop shot or when to go for a risky slice over the net. Even if you know what shots you want to use, trying to perform them consistently is next to impossible. Often, your swings aren’t recognized, so while you might be doing the motion for a flat shot, the game thinks you’re trying to perform a slice. Power shots are even worse and require you to swing harder to perform them. Harder swings are barely recognized at all, no matter how hard you try, so more often than not, you’re stuck playing slower control shots simply because the controls are unresponsive. Serving and targeting your shots is a little easier, thanks to the addition of some onscreen helpers.

You perform a simple serve by pushing the A button, which guarantees it will hit its target but will be slow. To unleash fast serves, you hold down the B button while raising your arm in the air and swinging it down. A targeting reticule appears above your character’s head, and when the ball is in the center, you swing. A circle appears on the opposite side of the court, which you move using the analogue stick to direct the shot. The circle itself is quite large, so if you aim close to the line but mess up your serve, the ball is likely to go out. The same targeting system applies to shots you’re returning, but thanks to the unresponsive controls, the timing is difficult to master, despite the inclusion of vibration feedback to let you know when to swing. This means that attempting to place balls closer to the line is incredibly risky.

Maybe Wii MotionPlus support would've made this racquet more useful.

Maybe Wii MotionPlus support would’ve made this racquet more useful.

The lackluster controls mean there’s little incentive to explore the game’s various modes, but even if you do, you’ll find little to entertain you. The Career mode begins with you creating a character. You choose the gender, along with a number of attributes, including height, facial features, and clothing. There are also settings for tennis style and behavior, which change the animation of forehands, backhands, and serves, as well as the type of grunt shouted during shots and the type of victory celebration at the end of a match. This is great if you want your character to throw down his or her racquet in disgust when losing a point or act nonchalant when winning a match.

Once you’ve created a character, you’re given the option of improving his or her attributes. There are five categories to choose from–forehand, backhand, serve, volley, and speed–with each category having six points assignable to it. You’re given two at the start as freebies, with an additional one coming from a coach you choose. Each coach specializes in a different category, with the number of bonus points a coach gives you increasing as you progress through your career. To progress, you have to compete in tournaments, but before you can do so, you have to complete a number of challenges. These take the form of minigames where you have to perform such tasks as hitting the ball into coloured zones, winning rallies, and winning or losing a service four or fewer times in a row. These are very repetitive, becuase you often end up playing the same minigames repeatedly just so you can participate in a tournament.

Tournaments take place in a variety of locations, featuring well-known courts from the US Open, as well as smaller ones, such as the Auckland Grand Prix and the California Cup. Each match you win earns you stars, which unlock new outfits and accessories for your character. The poor controls overshadow each game you play, though, making it difficult and not much fun to play through a match. Aside from the Career mode, you can play exhibition matches, where you play as one of 25 professionals, including contemporary stars, such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Serena Williams, or all-time greats like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Bjorn Borg.

The poor animation looks comical at times.

The poor animation looks comical at times.

Up to three friends can get in on the action in doubles matches, though unfortunately, there isn’t any online multiplayer. There are, however, a number of minigames to play. These include Getting Crowded, where a ball places a circle on the court with each bounce and subsequent balls that land in those circles are considered out; Bonus Regions, where landing a ball in a colored circle gives you extra points; and Paint the Court, where each bounce of the ball leaves paint splashes on the court and the player with the most splashes wins.

No matter what mode you choose to play, each is ruined by a frustrating control system that saps all the fun out of the game. Poor visuals do little to add to the experience either. Blocky character models are plagued with jagged edges and stilted animations that lack fluidity and realism, failing to capture the feel and speed of a real-life tennis match. Courts don’t fare much better, with each surface lacking detail, making them just look like blocky coloured blobs surrounded by a lifeless crowd. By attempting to create a realistic control system without the support of Wii MotionPlus, Top Spin 4 never manages to make you feel like you’re playing a game of tennis; instead, it leaves you frustrated and more likely to simply throw your Wii Remote down in disgust.

By Mark Walton

Kirby’s Epic Yarn Review

Enticing visuals and varied gameplay make Kirby’s latest adventure an absolute joy.

The Good

  • Charming and imaginative visuals
  • Transformations do a great job of mixing up the gameplay
  • Minigames are loads of fun and sometimes tricky to pass
  • Enjoyable cooperative play.

The Bad

  • Story levels are way too easy
  • A few controls quirks.

Side-scrolling platformers have been around for such a long time that it can be difficult for even the best entries in the genre to stand out from the crowd. Kirby’s Epic Yarn avoids this pitfall by presenting an irresistible visual style that pushes you to see what delight awaits beyond the next fold. But Kirby’s latest adventure doesn’t let its fabric-themed world do the heavy lifting while the gameplay unravels under the pressure. Expansive levels and a wealth of diverse mechanics inject variety into this quest, making it as much fun to jump and swing your way to the ending bell as it is to marvel at the striking aesthetics. A few control issues sometimes get in the way of your carefree fun, and the overall ease with which you can tear through the story levels strips away the pulse-racing satisfaction of a hard-fought victory, but Kirby overcomes these missteps with sheer imagination and a plethora of enticing content. With loads of minigames, hidden levels, and even an aggravation-free cooperative mode, Kirby’s foray into the land of yarn is bursting with joy.

Kirby is light enough to stand on snow but busts through blocks in anvil form.

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Who would have ever thought that yarn could be this cute? The whimsical story in Epic Yarn is told as if it were a children’s storybook, but the plot elements don’t matter one bit. The only thing you need to know is that Kirby has been whisked away from his happy home in Dream Land to a mysterious world called Patch Land, where creatures are composed of threads of yarn and the backgrounds look like finely detailed pieces of cloth. Charming touches abound in this unique world, giving the amorphous protagonist oodles of personality. Kirby doesn’t let his overwhelming cuteness get in the way of his heroic pursuits, but that’s not from lack of trying. From the way he wiggles his little arm to keep balance to the little scowl that adorns his face when confronting a mean ol’ boss, Kirby doesn’t shy away from being himself. The world is just as appealing and makes full use of its fabric construction. Scenery folds together when you yank a loose thread, electrical dangers turn into benign platforms by pulling them taut, and enemies unravel into nothing when you give them a sharp tug. It’s a pleasure just to stare at this adorable game.

But don’t worry that Kirby is all looks. The gameplay and visuals mesh seamlessly together, taking full advantage of this storybook world to create interesting scenarios. There are 50 levels in Epic Yarn, which includes a few boss fights and secret worlds, and a good variety of situations ensures you’re always experiencing something new. You may have to leap across springy mushrooms in one level, ride aquatic dinosaurs in the next, and swing across treacherous pits in a third. Kirby makes good use of his limited move set to keep you invested. Your core abilities include performing modest leaps and rolling foes into tight balls of yarn before tossing them, but you also have transformative powers that you can take advantage of at any time. You can change into a parachute to glide to a far away platform or morph into a submarine, complete with a tiny propeller, when you dive underwater. Double tapping in either direction lets Kirby take the form of a car, which is much faster than his usual plodding self, but the controls are not always reliable here. There are times when Kirby changes unexpectedly or stays in his pink blob form even when you’re trying to dash. Other control issues crop up when trying to grab onto enemies in crowded situations, but these are both small blemishes. The usually spot-on controls rarely get in the way of your enjoyment.

An enemy trying to inhale Kirby? There's a switch.

An enemy trying to inhale Kirby? There’s a switch.

Although Kirby’s quick transformations help add to the game’s charm and make navigation much easier, there are large sections of levels that are played in an entirely different form. Unlike previous Kirby games where you could inhale your enemies and steal their powers at any time, the big transformations in Epic Yarn occur in predestinated areas, but that doesn’t limit their thrill one bit. Some of them, such as the UFO and fire truck, let you interact with the environment in unique ways. The UFO can use its tractor beam at any time to suck up blocks and enemies, and being able to hover opens up the level design in creative ways. The fire truck may be stationed on the ground, but you can spray water on fire dangers and enemies alike, which is a good change from the core action. The most exhilarating of all transformations occurs when you become a space ship. This changes Epic Yarn into a fast-paced shoot-’em-up, and winding your way through an enemy’s bullets while retaliating in kind is tons of fun. The one dud is when you become a train. This is a call back to Kirby Canvas Curse on the DS but isn’t nearly as interesting. You paint tracks by pointing at the screen with the Wii Remote, but the train doesn’t always ride on what you put down, and you can drop unceremoniously to the ground just by nudging a corner. But even with one missed opportunity, the transformations are a great complement to the core action.

Enticing visuals and varied gameplay make Kirby’s latest adventure an absolute joy.

The Good

  • Charming and imaginative visuals
  • Transformations do a great job of mixing up the gameplay
  • Minigames are loads of fun and sometimes tricky to pass
  • Enjoyable cooperative play.

The Bad

  • Story levels are way too easy
  • A few controls quirks.

The only downside to all this fun is the difficulty, which skews way a bit far on the easy side. With no way to die and no clock urging you forward, there isn’t much satisfaction gained for successfully making your way to the end of a level. This is mitigated by a medal system that ranks how well you performed. There are beads to collect in each level, and depending on how many you finish with, you get a bronze, silver, or gold rating. Each time you fall in a pit or get hit by an enemy, you lose beads, so it’s imperative to avoid dangers if you want a good score. But even with this system in place, it’s still easy to breeze through most levels with a gold rating your very first time. Three hidden objects in each level also give you something to search for in addition to trying to hoard beads, but these are usually hidden in plain view so even they don’t provide an adequate reason to replay levels. Being easy is not an inherently bad thing, and Kirby is so fun and imaginative that it’s able to thrive anyway, but a little more challenge in the story levels could have added to the replay value and made it more exhilarating to come out on top.

It takes cooperation to make it through the minigames together.

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This lack of difficulty is most apparent in boss fights. Giant beings fill the screen, but it’s hard to be scared of their wrath when it’s impossible to die. Although these fights lack the excitement that a challenging duel could have provided, they’re full of the same fabulous charm that exudes from the rest of the adventure. A fierce dragon beats his wings to blow you away and then shoots out his pointed tongue to spear you in place. But if you avoid his attacks for a bit, he gets tired, and you get to yank his lolling tongue. As in the main stages, reaching the end with enough beads to get a high score is where the real challenge lies, but the bosses are so easy that it’s once again a cinch to come out on top with the highest ranking possible. There is one major bonus for scoring a high mark against these beasts: secret levels. Each of the seven worlds has optional levels that must be unlocked, and these are some of the best in the entire adventure. It’s well worth replaying these battles if you falter because of the excellent prizes that await.

It can take quite a few hours to play through all 50 levels in the main quest, but even when you reach the end, your journey is not yet done. There are close to 100 minigames to take part in as well,and these are much more entertaining than their shallow counterparts in other games. There are five different minigame types to choose from, and all of them are fun. Hide and seek, bash the baddie, carry your friend, collect the beads, and race all pit you against the clock, and they offer the only real challenge in the game. Trying to nab the last bead while the clock ticks down forces you to move with an exactness that is never demanded during your main adventure. The prizes for coming out on top are not very impressive. You earn fabric and furniture to decorate your apartment, but because that’s the only thing you can do in your home, it’s not very engaging. But that hardly matters. The real reward comes from conquering these tricky stages, and they deliver that in spades.

Kirby is much happier than the perpetually angry Prince Fluff.

Kirby is much happier than the perpetually angry Prince Fluff.

On top of the charming visuals and diverse gameplay is an ability to play the entire game cooperatively. Although the stages seem to be designed with a single player in mind, taking a friend along for the ride gives you new ways to pass levels and forces you to work in tandem if you want to hold on to your precious beads. The second player controls Prince Fluff, who looks like a blue Kirby with the same move set, and teaming up is a pain-free experience. Unlike in New Super Mario Bros. Wii where it was way too easy to get on your friends’ bad sides, co-op in Epic Yarn is much easier to handle. You can bump into each other, and you can even toss your friend against his will, but as long as you try not to be a jerk, getting through levels unscathed is just as breezy as playing alone. The different ways you can pass certain obstacles allows player to be creative. For instance, you may have to hunt for an enemy to toss through a barrier in single-player, but in co-op, you can just throw your friend through and collect whatever goodie appears. Co-op does make things slightly harder if you’re trying to nab every bead because one misstep from either player could cause you to go bankrupt, but experiencing this delightful journey with a friend by your side is just great.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn makes it clear from the get-go that it is an adorable game that will put a smile on your face through its outstanding visual design, but the delights go much deeper than the delectable aesthetics. Clever levels with varied objectives make it a blast to play, and though the main story is way too easy, there are at least challenging minigames to unlock for those who want to test their reflexes. A few control issues and lack of punishment shouldn’t keep you away from this great platformer. It takes quite a few hours to pass every stage and find every secret, and every moment you spend in this world is an utter delight. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a great platformer that goes far beyond its eye-catching visuals to deliver an irresistible adventure that’s difficult to put down.

By Tom Mc Shea

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Review

Ghost Recon’s shooting gallery action is shallow and repetitive, but it still manages to provide some entertainment.

The Good

  • Moving and shooting create a satisfying rhythm
  • Wii Zapper controls are great.

The Bad

  • Shallow shooting action
  • Enemies are either dumb or annoying
  • Friendly AI is limited.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon may be a recognizable name in the world of video games, but you shouldn’t judge this book by its cover. The story of international conflict is a pale shadow of the eponymous author’s work, and the intense, gadget-fueled tactical combat featured in previous Ghost Recon games is nowhere to be found. This is a cooperative on-rails shooter. You move through the streets of Moscow, with an AI or human companion, but the only freedom of movement you have is the choice of when to move to a new cover position. Your weapons aren’t terribly exciting, and most of your enemies seem to yearn for the sweet release of death. Ghost Recon is shallow and repetitive, though there is a good amount of fun to be had here. Moving from cover to cover and shooting hundreds of soldiers has a pleasing rhythm, and your enemies and weapons provide enough variety to help keep things from getting stale. It may not be much more than a military-themed shooting gallery, but Ghost Recon provides a good amount of light entertainment.

The small scope windows are novel, but using them properly is tricky.

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The reason you have to go to Russia and shoot a lot of bad guys is revolution. A rogue leader and his cranky band of ultranationalist soldiers are stirring the pot, and you have to help calm things down. There are a few cutscenes and a lot of mission briefings. The former aren’t good enough to make you feel you’ve been rewarded for beating a level. The latter–like when your commanding officer tells you to “keep it on the down low” during a stealth mission–make it clear that this isn’t exactly a taut international thriller.

You play as a two-man unit, either cooperatively with a local friend (there is no online play) or with an AI buddy. Most of the time, you are both stacked up behind cover, peeking out to shoot enemies and ducking back to avoid getting blown up or shot. You progress through the levels by pointing at bright chevrons that mark cover points and pressing a button to relocate. You can shake the remote to scurry and slide into cover or hold the aim button to walk slowly and shoot. Though you move independently of your partner, you can never move more than one cover point past his position. Usually, it’s a good idea to eliminate all the enemies you can see before moving, but sometimes, it’s worth the risk to gain a better angle or to live a little bit dangerously. It can be fairly repetitive, but it’s also possible to find some simple satisfaction in the rhythm of clearing enemies, advancing, clearing more enemies, and advancing further.

Vanquishing your foes individually is not very difficult; even if you don’t land a headshot, a couple of bullets to any part of the body should do the trick. They do shoot back, however, and if you get caught out when they are shooting, you take damage. You can heal, provided you haven’t run out of health power-ups, but if you take too much damage, you’ll be bumped back to the last checkpoint. As you progress, you encounter more evasive and trigger-happy enemies, including some powerful and pesky specialists. Enemies with rocket launchers or riot shields are dangerous but relatively easy to deal with; the engineers are a different story. These jerks hide behind cover almost all the time and send little remote-controlled cars strapped with explosives toward your position. The cars are easy to destroy, but they keep coming like clockwork until you manage to kill the engineer. If one slips through while you’re trying to clean up other enemies, you take a big health hit–in addition to feeling pretty annoyed. You can mitigate this frustration by shooting the cars when they are near your enemies and watching the explosion cause collateral damage.

Double chevrons indicate tougher foes.

Double chevrons indicate tougher foes.

There are also vehicles to contend with, like helicopters and heavily armed drones, but as long as you stay in cover when their attacks hit, you’re safe. The only thing cover does not protect you against are enemy tanks, so you have to be quick with the Zeus (a target-seeking rocket launcher) when they appear. Tank encounters are more intense than most; the Zeus has to be aimed at a target for three long seconds before it can fire. During this time, you are vulnerable, and getting shot resets the targeting sequence. It’s best to take out as many enemies as you can before taking on the tank, but you only have a limited time before the tank wheels around and blasts you to smithereens. The friendly AI generally does a good job of killing enemies throughout the game, not just picking off nearby enemies but also using long-range weaponry and grenades to good effect. However, though it plays a reasonable support role, you can’t always count on it to protect you during tank encounters. And though you have the option to let the AI wield the Zeus, it’s not consistent enough to handle the responsibility. These sections highlight the shallowness of the otherwise decent AI, but fortunately, they are fairly rare. You can also use a time-slowing power-up to help you gain an edge in these situations or in any encounter when there are a lot of bad guys.

Though you shoot more vehicles than you operate, there are true on-rails sequences when you man a helicopter-mounted minigun or take control of a mobile drone’s weapons. These sections are massacres in which you seemingly kill entire battalions during the course of a few minutes, and the unabashed slaughter offers a nice change of pace from the more methodical cover-based action. The campaign lasts for more than a few hours, depending on the difficulty level you choose, and as you progress, you unlock levels for play in Arcade mode. In Arcade mode, you play through excerpts from campaign levels and are scored for your performance. Shooting and killing enemies earns you points, and chaining together kills without taking damage increases your point multiplier. You can play competitively against a friend or the AI to see who can post the highest score, or you can play cooperatively to combine your efforts. It’s fun to try to outgun a buddy, and the online leaderboards offer targets for those who enjoy competition.

Somewhere back there is a guy with a giant bag full of tiny explosive cars.

Somewhere back there is a guy with a giant bag full of tiny explosive cars.

Ghost Recon isn’t a pretty game, but the main characters are animated well and the visuals are sharp enough for you to see and shoot enemies’ heads that are peeking out from behind cover. There is no blood or gore (enemies disappear soon after they are killed), and grenade explosions add a strange bit of levity to proceedings as they often send enemies flying 40 feet into the air. Despite the small freedom of movement, the whole game feels like a familiar on-rails shooter, from the predictable enemy movements to the fact that the Wii Zapper is actually the best way to play the game (though the Remote and Nunchuk also work well). Though the action isn’t terribly engaging, it manages to provide a good amount of solid, if shallow, entertainment. It may have little in common with previous games in the franchise, but Ghost Recon is a fine way to have some fun pointing and shooting.

By Chris Watters

NASCAR 2011: The Game Review

Pushover opponents and a stripped feature list are just two of NASCAR 2011′s unfortunate flaws.

The Good

  • At the hardest difficulty level, races can provide some excitement
  • Invitational events add welcome variety.

The Bad

  • It’s difficult to lose a race on anything but the hardest difficulty
  • Sparse package stripped of features present in the other versions
  • Stiff acceleration and braking.

Unless you count 2009′s NASCAR Kart Racing (and why would you?), NASCAR 2011 is the first NASCAR game for the Wii. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is a worthy one. This is circuit racing stripped to its bare essentials, held up only by a functional driving model that struggles to capture the tension of the real thing. Even on hard difficulty, you’ll rarely feel challenged by the other 42 drivers on the track. Beginning a race in pole position is essentially a guarantee that you’ll finish in first unless you crank the difficulty up to very hard. Off the track, Wii owners get few of the frills Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners enjoyed. There is no paint booth, no way to save races for sharing or later viewing, and no detailed vehicle customization. Invitational events give this sparse package some much-needed variety, but this halfhearted effort is a mere shadow of the great NASCAR games of years past.

Don't like the look of your vehicle? Oh well--you can't customize it.

Don’t like the look of your vehicle? Oh well–you can’t customize it.

Career mode drops you into the shoes of a known NASCAR driver or one of your own making and puts you through the paces, from Daytona to Homestead-Miami. You take to the circuits one at a time and make your way through a 36-race season, including the road course races on Watkins-Glen International and Infineon Raceway. The mode is functional, but it’s also dry and straightforward–no substitute for the impressive and extensive Fight to the Top modes in older NASCAR games. Even victory celebrations are subdued. Your driver dances about and breaks out the champagne while surrounded by fist-pumping fans, but this canned display gets old, and the roar of the crowd sounds more like a mild sigh. The blandness of the visuals further emphasizes the lack of excitement. The frame rate holds up nicely on the track, but jagged edges, fuzzy crowds, and drab vehicles suck the life out of crash replays.

Outside of the career mode, you can take any car to any track for a one-off race, or compete in eliminator events in which you set the number of challengers. These modes hold no surprises, so it’s up to NASCAR 2011′s invitational events to provide some diversity, and they do a decent job of it. You unlock these as you progress through your career, and they come in a few varieties. Perhaps the most interesting are legends challenges, in which you must draft other drivers to unlock collectible coins. A satisfying whoosh makes it enjoyable to draft, so an event focused on this mechanic is a good addition. Time trials, elimination events, and two-part gauntlet races round out the invitationals.

Elimination events provide some of the only occasions in which you see drivers in front of you.

Elimination events provide some of the only occasions in which you see drivers in front of you.

NASCAR 2011 makes it easy for newcomers to jump right in, and there are a number of driving assists to help you smoothly navigate the curves. Unfortunately, you can’t tweak vehicle handling any further. While the other versions let you customize minutiae like brake bias and differential ratio, NASCAR 2011 on the Wii offers no such features. In fact, Wii owners don’t get any number of features other iterations boasted–and those versions were lacking in content to begin with. There is no paint booth, so you can’t modify your car with flags, flames, and fonts of your own choosing. There is no replay feature, so you can’t save races for viewing at various camera angles, let alone share your favorite moments online. Nor is their any online racing, though you can join a friend in two-player split-screen races.

Any goodwill NASCAR 2011 earns quickly wears off when you discover that AI drivers are simply incapable of challenging you. You can smash into walls multiple times during qualification and still have no trouble taking pole, even on hard difficulty. And should you start the race in first place, you will almost always finish in first, often by an enormous margin should you play on medium difficulty. Perhaps this pitiful challenge is meant to compensate for the digital controls: if you use a classic controller or stick with a Wii Remote and Nunchuk, accelerating and braking are either/or actions. You either slam on the brake, or you stay off of it; you either accelerate at full speed, or you don’t accelerate at all. A GameCube controller’s analog triggers allow for more subtlety, though they’re still too rigid to feel totally comfortable. As a result, NASCAR 2011 feels clunky, particularly on road courses. That’s a real shame, given that steering is smooth and responsive regardless of your preferred control method.

Whoop. De. Doo.

Whoop. De. Doo.

On the hardest difficulty level and with assists at a minimum, races can still provide a modicum of excitement, rewarding you for sticking close to a proper racing line and requiring you to draft and pick up speed so that you might slingshot ahead. The game assigns you a rival in each race, and beating him (or her) gives you a little extra incentive to drive well, though this is a far cry from NASCAR Thunder 2004′s involved rivalry/alliance system. In NASCAR 2011, the track is your greatest rival; scraping the wall might throw you out of your rhythm, while a misconceived attempt to slide into an opening might lead to disaster. Assuming you’re racing more than a few laps and have turned on tire wear and damage, you also need to pay mind to your fuel gauge and vehicle condition. This affects your efficacy on the course, and in long races, you need to make a pit stop when necessary to replace tires and fuel up.

NASCAR 2011 is a gutted version of a game that was short on value to begin with, yet shockingly it sells at full price. This may be the only authentic NASCAR game in town, but Wii owners needing a Sprint Cup fix should avoid temptation and leave this problematic bare-bones racer on store shelves.

By Kevin VanOrd

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