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Just Dance 3 Review

The series is still as shallow as ever, but hilarious routines and a great selection of songs make Just Dance 3 heaps of fun that no party should be without.

The Good

  • Great selection of songs
  • Inspired choreography
  • Sharp visuals make it easy to follow dancers
  • Can’t create your own routines.

The Bad

  • No career mode or unlockables.

Letting go of your inhibitions can often be difficult–just ask a sober person at a karaoke bar–but doing so is a requisite for getting the most out of Just Dance 3. Its hilarious and often downright insane routines have you doing the jive bunny, playing air guitar, and jumping around like a complete loon to an eclectic selection of songs that are guaranteed to get you dancing. Though Just Dance 3 still lacks a career mode or even a set of simple unlockables, there’s plenty of fun to be had performing the visually striking and silly routines with a group of friends. It isn’t the game to go for if you’re after a technically challenging dancing experience, but if it’s a silly, energetic, and accessible dancing game you’re after, it’s unmatched.

Take on ’80s sensation A-ha with Just Dance 3.

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The Just Dance series has never been difficult to pick up and play: you pick a song to dance to, hold the Wii Remote in your right hand, and mimic the actions of a virtual dancer onscreen. You’re awarded points based on your movements, which are tracked by the Wii Remote, with each being scored as bad, OK, good, or perfect. No matter how many points you rack up, though, it’s impossible to fail out of a song. While this makes the game much more accessible for casual players, it removes much of the challenge, which makes playing on your own a dull experience for all but the most dedicated dance fiends.

Get three of your friends together, though, and you’ll have a lot more fun. Any song can be played with up to four players, and there are specific songs that have been designed with more dancers in mind. These include a bouncy duet to Girls Aloud’s “Jump” and a rock-and-roll duet to Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” It’s the four-player dances that are the most fun, though, with choreography that’s clearly designed to cause as much embarrassment for the participants as possible. Highlights include the Power Rangers-inspired “Spectronizer,” complete with multiple superhero poses, and Kiss’ “I Was Made for Loving You,” which features a full four-piece air band and the most unexpected dancing twist in the game.

The choreography is excellent throughout, striking a fine balance between fun, skill requirement, and suitability to the song. Play an early ’90s hit like “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” for instance, and you’re asked to perform the running man, while more modern songs like Duck Sauce’s “Barbra Streisand” and Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” feature sexy twists and twirls that wouldn’t look out of place onstage today. Even if you’re not participating, it’s hilarious to watch your friends perform, with onscreen lyrics that let you sing along too. While the excellent tracklist caters to most tastes, other songs are available to download from the in-game store, such as Anja’s “Baby Don’t Stop Now” and Groove Century’s “Soul Searchin,” for 250 Wii points each.

Strike a pose!

Strike a pose!

Matching the excellent choreography are the visuals. The bright neon dancers with their stark white outlines look better than ever and are still modelled after video footage of real-life performances, making them natural and easy to follow against the bright backgrounds. The artwork has seen an overhaul too, with improved detail and animations that fit within the theme of each song. Highlights include the ’70s disco lights and Afros in Earth Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”; the electronics-infused circuit boards and robot costumes in Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”; and the floating price tags and cash symbols in Jessie J’s “Price Tag.”

Aside from the standard Dance mode, there are different playlists to play through, coming under the banner of Sweat mode. You can jump straight into a playlist, or take part in a seven-day challenge, which does a great job of keeping track of your dancing and how many calories you’re burning over the course of the week. Unfortunately, that’s the only other mode to play through in Just Dance 3, with the Dance Battle mode of its predecessor going the way of the Dodo. Combined with the lack of a career mode or rewards, this makes Just Dance 3 a lightweight experience, and not much fun on your own. Playing with friends is key to getting the most out of the game’s routines, and when you do so, it’s hilarious. Each routine has been expertly choreographed, not to be technically impressive, but to be as much fun as possible. Even the most cynical of players should give Just Dance 3 a try–you might come away a little embarrassed, maybe even a little sweaty, but you’ll have a huge smile afterward.

By Mark Walton

Def Jam Rapstar Review

Though it lacks the rich community features of other versions, Def Jam Rapstar still has enough great songs to get your living room bumpin’.

The Good

  • Diverse songs represent different decades and styles
  • Freestyle mode offers a unique creative outlet.

The Bad

  • Some phrase-mapping issues
  • Bouncing ball not terribly helpful.

For years, people have gathered around the television, USB-powered microphones in hand, to test their singing prowess across a wide variety of musical genres. Karaoke games like Karaoke Revolution track pitch and timing to rate how a singer is doing, but because rap songs involve more rhythmic speaking than tuneful singing, the genre has been underrepresented in such games. Enter Def Jam Rapstar. As the instantly recognizable name suggests, the game features songs from some of the most famous rap acts in the world, both past and present. The songlist is impressive, and the added dimension of lyric tracking allows the game to reward you for singing the right words. However, without the video recording and community-sharing features of the other console versions, the Wii version is merely a straightforward karaoke game. This makes some of the game’s flaws more apparent, like the imperfect display and some questionable choices when it comes to what parts you do or don’t sing on a given song. Def Jam Rapstar isn’t the best karaoke game around, but its unique songlist still delivers a lot of entertainment.

Fortunately, your performances won’t have this kind of vocal lag if you use the handy auto-calibration tool.

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Any self-respecting karaoke game lets you get straight to singing from the get-go, and Def Jam Rapstar does just that. In any mode, one player can sing solo, or two players can either sing a duet or battle each other for a high score. Party mode offers most of the robust songlist right away, from old-school tracks like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” to recent hits like “Live Your Life” by T.I. feat. Rihanna. Lyrics range from tongue-twisting (Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See”) to mind-numbing (Soulja Boy Tell’em’s “Turn My Swag On”). And though there are some notable omissions, Def Jam Rapstar covers an impressive cross section of the genre. The game is, however, rated T for Teen, so some of your favorites may have gaping holes where lyrics should be (especially if you’re a Lil’ Kim fan), though you can fill them in without penalty. Seeing the references to older songs in more recent songs helps cultivate a neat sense of continuity across the 45-song catalog, though it’s a shame there is no online store from which to download more tracks.

There are two types of judging mechanics at work in Def Jam Rapstar. Melodic sections are represented by bars that indicate the relative length and pitch of each note in a phrase, as is the standard in karaoke games. Rap sections display a dot over each syllable, and a bouncing ball indicates when you should speak each one. The pace of the ball is meant to dictate your cadence, but it is small and moves quickly, so it doesn’t make a very good guide. While it’s possible to use the pitch bars to guess what the pitch and duration of a given note are, players who are unfamiliar with a song will likely have a harder time picking out the rap sections. If you’re braving an unfamiliar track, your best bet is to listen to the rapper and try to follow his or her cadence, though some artists make that easier than others. Some tracks can also cause problems for solo players because of odd phrasing that, for example, makes you sing the lead vocals and the chorus in rapid succession (like “Put On” by Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West). Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” has you sing both the male and female parts of the call-and-answer chorus, while other melodic sections have you sing a pitch that isn’t the obvious choice. Finding a spare moment to breathe and pick out the right pitch can occasionally be challenging, but on the whole, Def Jam Rapstar does a solid job of presenting the songs and tracking your performance.

Not so lil anymore, are you Wayne?

Not so lil anymore, are you Wayne?

Nailing the lyrics gives you big bonus points, but even if you just manage to mumble along to the beat, you can still get a reasonably good rating on most songs. Doing well fills a multiplier meter that boosts your score and rewards you for chaining successful phrases together. The difficulty levels are forgiving and allow players of all skill levels to progress through the five-stage career mode. Success in this mode unlocks a few new songs, as well as new tracks for Freestyle mode. Songs in Freestyle mode don’t have any lyrics; they just provide a background track with which you can experiment. Whether you thoughtfully compose your own verses or just let loose some freestyle flow, this mode is a unique opportunity for creativity that most rhythm games don’t offer.

Unfortunately, that is the extent of what Def Jam Rapstar does offer. On the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, players can record performance videos, add visual effects, and upload videos to the community website for other players to rate and share. Although Wii owners (and anyone else with a Web browser) are free to peruse the online community, the game doesn’t connect to these features at all. Without this social outlet, Rapstar is just another rhythm game, and though there are some rough spots in the game’s execution, it stands firm as a solid karaoke experience. The songlist is unlike any other on the market, and whether you prefer the smooth Slick Rick or the manic Beastie Boys, anyone with even a passing interest in rap is likely to find something to enjoy here. Def Jam Rapstar confidently captures this underrepresented genre in a unique way, giving you an entertaining new way to rock your living room mic.

By Chris Watters

Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars Review

The Clone Wars offers an ambitious step up from previous games in the series, but a ton of small issues across the board lead to boredom and frustration.

The Good

  • Bold artistic design
  • Drop in/drop out cooperative play is a hoot.

The Bad

  • Few clear objectives and awful visual feedback
  • Exhausting bouts against respawning enemies
  • Lots of small control issues
  • Space combat is way too confining
  • No online option.

Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars encapsulates the far-reaching breadth of war. Space assaults pit plucky fighter crafts against monstrous battle cruisers; on land, a battalion of rocket-wielding clones take on a six-legged tank; and the entire affair is tied together with a sweeping story that includes dozens of characters from across the universe. This game is absolutely bursting with content, and the variety and scope of battles separates it from its much more restrictive forebearers. But all is not well in this far-away galaxy. Obtuse puzzles and directionless objectives force you to frequently stop your lightsaber-swinging fun to figure out what the heck you have to do next, and an assortment of control quirks have you fighting the game as often as you’re fighting the empire. These problems pervade every inch of this epic adventure, overshadowing improvements in other areas. The Clone Wars contains the lighthearted fun the series is known for, but frustration bubbles just below the surface in this uneven sequel.

Jar Jar to the rescue!

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The theatrical releases of Star Wars have been tapped dry at this point, so The Clone Wars draws its inspiration from television’s well. The animated series hasn’t ingrained itself into the popular culture quite like the beloved movies, however, which means there’s a chance you may not be familiar with the plight of Commander Cody and Wag Too. It’s easy enough to understand the gist of this mostly silent story, but a lot of the more esoteric references will be lost on casual fans of the franchise. Although this tale may go over your head at times, your eyes will be captivated nonetheless by the impressive visuals. In a marked step up from previous games in the series, Lego Star Wars III has a unique style all its own that meshes realistic environments with Lego characters and ships. Foliage-dense planets teeming with miniature droids are a sight to behold, and a variety beautiful vistas ensure there’s always another piece to this delectable puzzle. The nod toward realism does remove some of the Lego personality that defined the other games in the series, but it’s ultimately a worthy trade-off for the eye-catching landscapes throughout this adventure.

There are 18 distinct missions across 13 planets in The Clone Wars, and it can take more than 20 hours to reach the ending credits. Roughly half of the game should be familiar to series veterans. You stroll through tanker ships, desert towns, and all manner of alien environs solving puzzles and cutting down foes with your crew of merry do-gooders. Each character class has its own set of powers–for instance, Jedi can move items with the Force, droids can open locked doors, and clones can grapple up ledges–and you need to switch between them on the fly to solve puzzles and take down enemies. Whacking the environment to get studs is as addictive as ever, and there’s a good mix between puzzle solving and combat to ensure you don’t get bored. It’s a fun, though somewhat predictable, jaunt, but a number of small problems continually interfere with your enjoyment.

Ride that horned beast!

Ride that horned beast!

The most pressing issue is a lack of clear objectives. The Clone Wars does a poor job of pointing you in the right direction, and lousy visual feedback further hampers your chance for success. For instance, a door may flash red when you shoot it with your blaster, which means the door is destructible, but you have to guess how to blow it up. You may need to keep shooting it with your current character or switch to someone else with a different power, and there’s a chance no one in your party can destroy it. Basic explanations of how your actions are affecting the environment are absent in The Clone Wars, and this leads to lost hours while you dumbly explore every option and hope you happen upon a solution. Fundamental problems don’t stop there. Using the Force to move objects will give you new appreciation for Luke’s struggles on Dagobah. Telepathically maneuvering items is incredibly sloppy, yet the game demands that you be ultraprecise at times. Switching between characters requires you to be standing very close together, which is a serious inconvenience when your party is split up. Respawning enemies are a tiresome annoyance that makes it difficult to focus on the puzzles blocking your path. And targeting is a complete mess. You’re just as likely to select an ally as you are the intended object in the background, and this ineptitude turns even breezy diversions into painstaking affairs.

The Clone Wars doesn’t confine itself to the narrow corridors of previous games in the series. There are large-scale battles as well, and these offer a vastly different experience. In a nod toward real-time strategy games, during some missions, you need to build up your base to overthrow the invading forces. A dozen or so small camps dot the landscape, and you control each area by clearing out your enemies. Once you’ve taken over, you build cannons, barracks, shields, and other tactical tools in an attempt to make your army strong enough to declare victory. It’s a neat concept that doesn’t quite capitalize on its promise. First of all, the levels are so large that it takes forever to jet from one place to another. There are vehicles to speed up the locomotion, but this doesn’t help matters. You spend more time schlepping from one place to another than planning assaults, and this leads to tiring monotony. Second, arbitrary camera restrictions limit your power. You need cannons to destroy some of your enemy’s structures. Once these big weapons are erected, you hop inside and point where you want to fire. But oftentimes the camera inexplicably snaps back after you’ve locked on, and the constant pull and tug with your view makes it unnecessarily difficult to launch an offensive volley.

Hey, how come he gets four lightsabers?

Hey, how come he gets four lightsabers?

The final part of the Clone Wars experience is the space battles. These are some of the most exhilarating sequences in the game. Lasers flood the screen, enemy ships scream in from all sides, and explosions dot the black sky with red flames. The uplifting score and bombastic sound effects add to the chaos, creating a volatile atmosphere that captures the galactic rush from the movies. But just like every other aspect of this disappointing game, the potential is limited by a number of festering problems. The controls are the biggest culprit here. Movement is jerky and unintuitive, so you’re frequently turning in the wrong direction or performing a barrel roll when you just wanted to cruise around like the Jedi stud that you are. And though the vast expanse of space is spread out all around you, you’re restricted to moving on a 2D plane (you can’t fly higher or lower). It feels stifling to move in such a limited space, and the hokey method of exploring other sections diminishes the immersion. You have to latch on to what looks like a satellite tow service to shoot to another plane, and having to artificially travel to higher parts of space makes you feel like a Jedi baby who still has his training saber.

Cooperative play elevates every part of this adventure to a higher level. The pacing and control issues aren’t nearly as damaging with a friend by your side, and two brains can figure out the obtuse puzzles more quickly than one. If you’re feeling feisty, you can challenge your friend in head-to-head matches in the RTS mode, and that provides mild entertainment for a little while. Unfortunately, there’s no online option, so another good idea is tempered by subpar execution. And that is the theme that carries through every aspect of The Clone Wars. This game is a noteworthy leap in a number of key areas, especially visuals and gameplay diversity, but these positive steps are hindered by archaic design choices and a lack of fine-tuning. The Clone Wars proves that you need more than ambition to shine.

By Tom Mc Shea

Captain America: Super Soldier Review

Super Soldier presents a bland-looking world with a bevy of mechanical problems, but beating down foreign aggressors still delivers patriotic fun.

The Good

  • Detailed animations give your attacks serious weight
  • Stringing together long combos is satisfying
  • Good variety of objectives.

The Bad

  • Sluggish moves lead to frustration
  • Automated platforming lacks excitement
  • Tired visual design
  • Dull story.

Captain America really savors a good beatdown. Once locked in a hand-to-hand fight with the foreign soldiers who threaten his patriotic ideals, he unleashes every punch, shield bash, and thunder kick in slow-motion to relish his physical superiority over his non-super adversaries. In Captain America: Super Soldier, you tear through opposing forces with xenophobic glee, and the exaggerated manner of your attacks lets you appreciate Cap’s athletic prowess and diverse move set. But the fine animations come at the expense of speed and flexibility. Defeating even low-level enemies takes much longer than you would expect from the likes of The Star-Spangled Avenger, and his lethargic attitude becomes downright frustrating when you face off against large groups. Captain America: Super Soldier encompasses heroic highs and human lows, resulting in an uneven stroll through hostile Germany.

Busting Nazis makes him feel good.

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Comic book detractors have been known to levy all manner of criticism at the medium. From saying that comic books embody adolescent power fantasies to claiming they distort the view of female anatomy, there are many ways to disparage these visual stories. But rarely do you hear that they are boring. Captain America: Super Soldier unfortunately embraces this last descriptor. Red Skull’s single-minded quest to form an army of super soldiers is told in such a dispassionate way that it’s difficult to follow along with the twists and turns, let alone care about them. Sleepy voice actors that yawn trite lines hide motivations, and there aren’t many noteworthy events to grab your attention. Presentation issues carry over to dull visual design. Captain A tramps through a variety of similar-looking environments, and the unrelenting march of browns and grays dampens your spirits even more than the opposing army.

Once you look past the oppressive atmosphere, Super Soldier becomes a lot more respectable. Combat is your main means of interaction, and dispatching foes with panache gives you a warm appreciation for this well-muscled patriot. Although there is only one button dedicated to up-close attacks, Cap has a wide assortment of moves in his repertoire. Combat blows are randomly triggered based on who you’re fighting and the length of your current combination. You might punch a German soldier in the belly, slam his face into your knee, or perform a rising dragon punch complete with red, white, and blue fireworks. Each individual animation is well crafted and lets you feel the pain as you beat down silly chumps. Counterattacks let you cover your backside when you’re busy smacking another dude in the chops. Obvious button prompts warn you of an imminent attack, and you can chain long combos together by mashing your attack and counter buttons at the appropriate time.

In the early stages, combat is a strong point. Stringing long attack sequences together carries with it a heroic thrill, and making smart use of your agility ensures you don’t suffer retaliatory blows. But by the time you reach the midpoint of the game, your carefree fun is stymied by this inflexible system. Enemies come in a variety of forms, and many of them require specific techniques to defeat. For instance, one wily robot shoots missiles your way, and you have to catch them with your shield and then throw them back to cause a debilitating explosion. But floaty controls make it tricky to block when you’re surrounded by aggressive enemies, aiming your shield in first-person mode is a time-consuming task, and singling out a specific assailant isn’t always possible. Furthermore, your animations take so long to unfold that it’s possible to get caught in an inescapable explosion. Knock-back attacks derail your fun in a hurry, resulting in tiring ordeals as you struggle to right the wonky camera, aim at the appropriate enemies, and avoid offscreen attacks.

Red, white, and blue him away.

Red, white, and blue him away.

Despite these late-game issues, combat is still the best part of Super Soldier. When you do find a good rhythm, there’s an inherent satisfaction in shoving your nationalistic superiority down a nonbeliever’s throat, and periodic unlockables inject you with new powers to keep things fresh. And though the blue-clad Captain isn’t known for his intellect, puzzling traps do a good job of mixing up your objectives. These conundrums frequently entail smashing the appropriate electrical box, though you have to pull off some fancy maneuvers to expose its feeble circuitry. Your shield–so sluggish in combat–is instrumental in these circumstances. You may have to ricochet gun blasts around a wall or nail a number of switches with one smooth throw, and figuring out what needs to be done and then executing it perfectly does embolden your cerebral side. Straightforward level design ensures you always know where to go next, though a number of optional objectives give you a chance to tinker around if exploration is your thing. Elective puzzles, breakable walls, and other distractions help to immerse you in the world of international sabotage.

The most devious of your secondary goals are challenges that provide difficult tests in your adventure. These time-based missions present you with specific duties, and you need to master your combat skills and movement abilities to pass with flying colors. These take an assortment of forms, including puzzle-solving, platforming, combat, and every combination thereof, which injects a healthy variety into your skull-bashing hijinks. However, certain scenarios fall flat because of mechanical limitations. Quickly defeating enemies is not The Captain’s strength. Beating down enemies like you normally would (or countering their attacks) takes far too long, and even winging your shield and then finishing them off with a ground stomp doesn’t always work. Cap focuses on the strongest enemy at any given time, so you may stand over a fallen foe and still not attack him. Challenges in which you aim for targets with your shield also have issues. Rotating the camera is inconsistent when pointing at the screen, and it’s easy to accidentally lock on to the wrong target when you’re trying to move quickly.

No fair! How come she gets a sword?

No fair! How come she gets a sword?

Not only is Captain America superstrong, but he also has superior agility. Unfortunately, the moments in which you must scale your environment are the weakest parts of this uneven game. Jumping from platform to platform is mostly automated. As long as you’re holding the analog stick in the correct direction, Cap lands right where he should. This removes any semblance of challenge in making impressive leaps, and subsequently, much of the fun drains away. Without the fear of failure, you dutifully go through the motions without any emotional investment. Despite the win-button approach to jumping, seeing Cap hurdle gracefully through the air still carries with it some excitement, even if you don’t have much direct control over the proceedings. However, later on, the game takes a serious turn for the worse. Sliding rails demand you leap off at exact moments, and the gravity holding you to these beams doesn’t always kick in; thus, letting you fall back to the ground. The camera also makes it difficult to see which way you need to go at times, resulting in tedious sequences where you try to figure out where the exit point lies.

The different elements are showcased in boss sequences in which figuring out what to do is more challenging than actually doing it. There’s a good variety, but many sequences fall back on tired quick-time events, and the controls aren’t responsive enough to make these enjoyable. America’s greatest patriot deserves a more robust and thrilling game, but there’s still enough engaging content in Super Soldier to satiate any longtime Captain America fan that is thirsty for a digital offering of his fascist-bashing adventures.

By Tom Mc Shea

Wii Party Review

No matter how many parties you have going on on your Wii already, this is one that you don’t want to miss.

The Good

  • Huge variety of games that hit more than they miss
  • Several interesting modes
  • Charming visual style
  • Some fun and unique games that focus on the Wii Remote.

The Bad

  • A few of the games have some control issues
  • Some annoying sound effects.

You might think that another minigame collection is the last thing your Wii library needs right now, but it’d be unfortunate if you were to dismiss Nintendo’s latest offering on that basis alone. Wii Party is an inventive and varied game that’s fun for the whole family to play together and which does some really interesting things with the Wii Remote along the way. A number of modes afford you different ways to play according to how big your party is and how long you’re planning to play for, and regardless of which you choose you’re sure to have a good time.

There are several games that incorporate minigames. This one is both faster and more fun than Mario Party.

There are several games that incorporate minigames. This one is both faster and more fun than Mario Party.

Wii Party is packed with more than 80 games, and there are quite a few different modes in which to play them. You can play a Mario Party-style board game, which runs at a faster pace and evokes the fun of the best games in the Mario Party series. You can also compete in a globe-trotting board game that requires as much strategy as it does minigame skill. There’s a bingo game that uses Mii faces, a Wheel of Fortune-type game that requires a good bit of luck, a Mii matching game, and more. Many of the game modes reward your minigame skill with a better starting position, more points, or some other kind of advantage. There are enough wild cards, like luck-based minigames, or negative spaces on the board games, to keep the playing field relatively even though.

In addition to the four-player games, there are modes for pairs to enjoy, like the boat balancing game, which requires you to balance Miis on a three-tiered boat mast. If you do well in the minigames, you’re rewarded with equally weighted Miis for the boat. You can also play a silly and simple matching game that tests your compatibility with a friend through a series of questions you each answer without telling the other. There are even a couple of solo modes. One requires you to beat minigames to move forward on a space map; if you lose too many, it’s game over. Another one isn’t a minigame at all, but 30 levels of an interesting puzzle game that has you manipulating the paths of automated Miis to water plants. That latter is quite addictive, and it’s a shame there aren’t more levels, though to be fair, Wii Party isn’t really about single-player gaming.

Wii Party can be a blast if you’ve got a full room of friends. There’s a huge variety of minigames to play; everything from kart racing to vegetable chopping. There’s even a minigame that has you running away from zombie Miis (so that means zombies can mark another genre off their list of video games to appear in). You’ll see a few recycled minigames and a few that seem a bit too similar, but Nintendo has thrown in a couple of unique twists that employ the Wii Remote in clever ways. A handful of minigames revolve around the remote itself. One has you passing the remote around as if it’s a bomb. One person must hold a button and pass it to another. The next person has to press a button as he or she receives it–careful not shake it too much. This simple game can be a lot of fun with a group of friends with its tense mix of simplicity and precision. Another game actually asks you to hide your Wii Remotes in the living room. When the “finders” return to the room, they must find the remotes, which emit a sound from their speakers every 10 seconds. Another one asks you to line up your remotes on the floor or a table. The remotes will play an animal sound, and everyone has to scramble to pick up the right one. These minigames are interesting because they seem to step beyond the TV screen–it’s not just you pointing at the screen and interacting with a digital rendition of yourself. These particular minigames don’t require any video game skill or knowledge. They’re more about having fun with a group of people, which is what Wii Party is all about.

The wide breadth of games–and unique ways to experience them–make up for the individual games’ lack of depth. Quite a few of the games take longer to load than play, and aside from high scores, there’s not much incentive to spend a lot of time in any one particular mode. Wii Party is fun for the whole family, but some of the ccoperative games are difficult to win if you’re not playing with someone of equal skill. That problem is exacerbated by the occasional control issues. Sometimes you’re asked to hold the Wii Remote sideways and use the D pad for movement. Then in the next round, you play a game with very similar mechanics, except this time, you have to tilt the Wii Remote to move. These arbitrary changes can frustrate players who aren’t already comfortable with the controller. None of these issues are game breakers, though. It’s just that when everyone is having such a great time with the games, the niggling control and difficulty issues stick out because they can abruptly change the flow of a game from fun to frustrating, depending on the skill levels of those playing.

Thanks to the unique controls, this is the tensest game of hot potato you'll ever play.

Thanks to the unique controls, this is the tensest game of hot potato you’ll ever play.

If you’ve played any of the other Mii-centric games made by Nintendo, you’ll know what to expect with the presentation: sparse visuals that blend with the Mii style and that special Nintendo brand of over-the-top cheerfulness. Your Miis wear all kinds of silly costumes, depending on the game you’re playing, and some of their winning and losing animations are funny. Some are borderline hilarious–depending, of course, on what your Miis look like. There’s a host for this game that looks like he was stolen from the Muppets, and he speaks a weird high-pitched gibberish. The music is lively and upbeat, and it gets the job done. The Wii Remote speakers are put to great use for a few of the games, but there are some chimes and trills that play often enough across the modes to get a little annoying.

The library of Wii minigame collections is oversaturated for sure, but don’t let that stop you from checking out this entry from Nintendo. Few games pack in so much variety and charm while remaining accessible and, most importantly, fun. If you own a Wii but don’t have a party game on your shelf (or even if you do already own a party game or two), Wii Party is a party you’ll want to attend.

By Austin Light

Sid Meier’s Pirates! Review

Control issues and other frustrations make this a very disappointing version of the classic game of adventure on the high seas.

The Good

  • Impressive freedom to play how you want to play
  • Wii-exclusive bombardment and lock-picking minigames are good additions
  • Ship combat is tactical and enjoyable.

The Bad

  • Minigames get old quickly
  • Unresponsive controls hamper dancing and swordfighting minigames
  • Some grainy visuals and performance issues
  • Flimsy manual and poor tutorial for a game with so much complexity.

For weeks, you’ve been tenaciously pursuing a pirate even more notorious than you across the Caribbean. So far, he has managed to stay just a short distance ahead of you, and your crew is starting to get restless, but you refuse to give up the chase. At long last, the wind catches your sails and you’re within range of your prey with cannons at the ready. Dreaming of the fortune in doubloons your rival is rumored to carry aboard his ship, you give the order to fire. Thrilling moments like this that let you live out your pirate fantasies have made earlier releases of Sid Meier’s Pirates on the PC, Xbox, and PSP great. But the repetitive minigames that make up the life of a pirate are starting to show their age, and a number of Wii-specific frustrations prevent this from being a worthy version of this beloved game.

You should always try to board rather than sink enemy ships.

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Pirates sets the stage for your adventures in the Caribbean with a brief movie that tells the tale of your family’s imprisonment by the vile Marquis Montalban. As the lone escapee, you control their fate. You must then choose one of five difficulty levels and one of five eras of the 1600s, which affects things like the general attitude toward pirates, the frequency of war breaking out between nations, and the fortifications protecting certain ports. Finally, you must sign up with the French, English, Spanish, or Dutch, and then you set sail. As a result of an outbreak of mutiny during your voyage, you assume command of the vessel, and from that point on, you are in charge of your own destiny. From an overhead perspective that shows your ship gliding across a Caribbean that looks like a vibrant map brought to life, you sail with ease, steering your vessel left and right with the control pad and unfurling or trimming the sails with the press of a button to make the most of what the wind can give you.

Just be sure you have enough food in the cargo bay to keep your crew fed as the days and weeks fly by, and that you keep the loot coming in rapidly enough to keep them happy, or they may start abandoning you. Naturally, as a pirate, if your supply of food runs low, you can always just take some other ship’s food for your own. You can maintain allegiance to certain nations and climb the ranks of nobility while sinking the warships of other countries. You can become an opportunistic pirate with no loyalty to anyone but himself. You can even operate as a peaceful trader, shuttling goods from ports where they are plentiful to ports where they are highly prized. And as for your family, you can focus all your energies on rescuing them or never spare them a second thought.

This freedom to travel and do as you please, and the wealth of opportunity that’s available to you, can make Pirates intoxicating. You can hardly put in to any port without hearing juicy gossip about where to find a rival pirate, or perhaps being sold part of a map to a buried treasure. Drop by a governor’s mansion, and you may receive a promotion, granting you benefits in that nation’s ports. You may even be given a chance to escort the governor’s daughter to a ball; in return, she may give you valuable information, useful items, or, eventually, her hand in marriage. Unfortunately, the dancing minigame you must play to impress the young ladies that you’re paired with is terrible. Responding to onscreen cues, you must swing the remote right, left, up, or down, but it’s difficult to get a sense of the exact timing required to make these moves. Sometimes you feel certain you nailed the timing, only to see your pirate stumble on the dance floor.

If your crew could see you now you'd have a mutiny on your hands.

If your crew could see you now you’d have a mutiny on your hands.

But of course, a pirate spends most of his time at sea, not hobnobbing at high-society dances. As you sail across the pristine blue waters, you can attack any other ship you see, though if you’re diplomatically minded, you may want to spare a glance to check what nation’s flag it’s flying first. You should also consider how many cannons that ship has compared to yours, and whether or not she’s well manned, because an adequate crew is vital for quickly reloading cannons between salvos. It’s also important to try to come at your prey from windward; the added speed and maneuverability this affords you can easily mean the difference between victory and defeat. Once you commit to attacking the enemy ship, the camera closes in on the patch of sea where your cannon fire will be exchanged. Combat is a straightforward but enjoyable matter of trying to angle your ship properly so that the rain of cannon fire you discharge from your port or starboard side hits the other ship, while simultaneously trying to keep your ship out of your enemy’s sights. There are different types of ammunition you can use: one for tearing the ship’s hull to bits, one for damaging her sails, and one for thinning out her crew. These battles are simultaneously accessible and tactical.

Control issues and other frustrations make this a very disappointing version of the classic game of adventure on the high seas.

The Good

  • Impressive freedom to play how you want to play
  • Wii-exclusive bombardment and lock-picking minigames are good additions
  • Ship combat is tactical and enjoyable.

The Bad

  • Minigames get old quickly
  • Unresponsive controls hamper dancing and swordfighting minigames
  • Some grainy visuals and performance issues
  • Flimsy manual and poor tutorial for a game with so much complexity.

Sinking your target and whatever treasures she carries does you no good, of course, so once you thin out her crew, you want to close in and board her. If the crew is thoroughly demoralized, the ship may surrender to you immediately, but more often than not, you have to take up your trusty sword and duel her captain before you can claim her. Unfortunately, the swordfighting minigame, while not quite as bad as the dancing game, isn’t responsive or much fun. You wave the remote to chop, slash, or thrust with your sword, and you push buttons to jump, duck, or parry your opponent’s moves. There’s a discernible rhythm to these duels that you pick up on over time, but there’s still often a frustrating delay between waving the remote and seeing your pirate captain perform the indicated move. Additionally, the fact that these duels play out the same way over and over again makes them wear thin pretty quickly. Each duel you win against a criminal in the back room of a tavern concludes with a beautiful barmaid breaking a bottle over the villain’s head, while nearly every duel you win on a ship ends with the losing captain falling overboard, or one of a few minor, comedic variations on this conclusion. You might quickly come to feel like a pirate trapped in his own personal Groundhog Day, cursed to live the same events over and over again.

You’re not necessarily gonna need a bigger boat.

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There are two other minigames, both exclusive to the Wii version, that you encounter during your pirating career. One is bombardment, which occurs when you try to land at a fortified city belonging to a country that you’ve made angry. It’s a simple on-rails shooter sequence in which you aim with the remote at the cannons and ships defending the city. There’s not much to it, but at least it works properly, unlike the dancing and swordfighting minigames. Finally, should you be arrested by a pirate hunter and tossed in jail, you can escape early by successfully completing a lock-picking minigame, which also makes good use of the remote. Here, your goal is to tilt the remote to find the correct position for your lock pick, while avoiding being caught in the act by patrolling guards. It’s a fun little minigame, but it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself being arrested very often.

When you’re not busy sinking ships, you might engage in a bit of old-fashioned, X-marks-the-spot treasure hunting, using maps you’ve bought off mysterious strangers lurking in the shadowy corners of taverns. This is one area in which the absurdly flimsy manual that comes with the game becomes a problem. The manual is a two-page affair with no content other than the control schemes for each minigame. This would be fine if the game included a robust tutorial, but it doesn’t. You can find some useful information by paging through the in-game Pirate-o-pedia, but it’s no substitute for proper instructions. For instance, when hunting for treasure, you might sail to what you know is the location indicated on the map for the buried treasure, yet find nothing. What the game never tells you–unless you stumble upon it by scouring the descriptions for the 43 available achievements–is that you need to reveal the treasure’s location by using a spyglass before you can collect it. Pirates may be an easy game to pick up and start playing, but you still need to learn a thing or two to get the most out of it.

The sailing aspect of Pirates looks good. The blue waters are inviting, and the sight of dolphins leaping in the wake of your ship makes this romanticized version of the Caribbean a place you’ll enjoy visiting. That is, until things start to get noticeably sluggish when lots of ships and landmasses are onscreen at once, which can make the already slow process of sailing east against the wind downright excruciating. In addition, the minigames all have a grainy look to them, subduing the otherwise vibrant visuals. At least the sounds are a pleasure. Lovely melodies emanate from the cities you sail near, and the wordless vocalizations of characters you encounter set a breezy, lighthearted tone.

The bombardment minigame is one of two introduced in the Wii version.

The bombardment minigame is one of two introduced in the Wii version.

There’s a perfunctory option for a second player to assist by performing minor tasks like attacking the enemy captain as a parrot during swordfights and adjusting the sails during sea battles, but it’s hard to imagine anyone getting excited about playing such an inconsequential role. It’s not that the qualities that made Pirates a classic are invisible in this Wii version. It’s just that enjoying those aspects is all but impossible as a result of the frustrations that crop up. With the vastly superior PC, Xbox, and PSP versions widely and cheaply available, many potential players have easy access to a much better Pirates experience. This Wii version is better left buried and undiscovered by even the greediest of treasure hunters.

By Carolyn Petit

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

Monster Hunter Tri Review

Exciting online play and beautiful visuals help Monster Hunter Tri finally make good on the series’ enormous potential.

The Good

  • Taking down a huge monster is insanely satisfying
  • Monsters move and act in believable ways
  • Great visuals and animations really pull you in
  • Fun online co-op play
  • Underwater battles are a great twist.

The Bad

  • Forced use of the Wii Remote for cataloging monsters
  • Online synchronization issues
  • Long animations can frustrate.

The monsters of Monster Hunter Tri don’t resemble any creatures you’d glimpse in real life, yet there’s something remarkably authentic about them. These raging beasts react to your presence with the kind of violence you’d expect. They howl with hatred, stare you down, and charge toward you with a single focus: destroy the intruder. So begins a typically intense encounter with one of Monster Hunter’s hulking foes, and it’s one that could end with your limp body crushed under a gigantic wyvern claw. But with the right preparation and skill, you can overcome, and that moment of triumph is among gaming’s most satisfying. This action/role-playing series finally reaches its potential with Tri, which renders its wild paradise in beautiful detail and lets you team up with friends or strangers online to tame it. A few of the game’s facets are stubbornly mired in the past, such as a couple of awkward control issues and some online oddities. But this is, finally, what Monster Hunter had the potential to be all along: intense, involving, and most importantly, great fun.

The great sword is not built for speed.

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Your role in Monster Hunter Tri is that of the great savior of Moga Village, which is having trouble with sea commerce, what with a terrifying sea monster bullying the local sailors. But as a neophyte hunter, you can’t just plunge into the restless waters and take a whack at the thing–it takes some decent gear, the right support items, and a good amount of skill to take on such a creature. Luckily, the local guild girl is on hand to help prepare you by handing off quests and sending you into the surrounding wilds. There, you chop up heinous beasts (plus a few adorable ones), as well as collect all manner of rocks and flora, which are important for creating the potions, traps, and other support items necessary for survival. The single-player campaign starts small, sending you off to attack fleet-footed dinos, collect herbs, and roast meat with your handy barbecue spit. It’s a sluggish introduction, but there’s a lot to take in, especially if you’re a series newcomer. You’ve got a farm, where cat creatures called felynes harvest important plants, mushrooms, and more. You’ve also got a fishing fleet to order about, a cook who drums up some tasty meals (possibly some disgusting ones as well), a blacksmith who fashions new weapons and armor out of all the sundry monster bits you bring him, and plenty more. There’s a lot to Monster Hunter Tri, and the first few hours do a good job of helping you get your bearings.

It’s when you take on your first giant lizard–the Great Jaggi–that Monster Hunter Tri begins to sink its sharp claws into your flesh. Standard quests generally come with a time limit, and taking on one of the game’s massive monsters might fill that entire schedule. Every creature, from the slithery Royal Ludroth to the fire-breathing Rathalos, employs a number of devastating attacks that can take off a big chunk of your health bar if you’re not completely invested in the battle. Monster behavior is consistent enough that you’ll learn how to react to certain patterns and take advantage of openings, yet there’s also a certain element of unpredictability. A heavy creature might suddenly bound forward with surprising speed, drop to the ground and roll, or vomit mud on you. It might become suddenly enraged and go berserk, flailing about with abandon–all legs, claws, and tail. All the while, you might need to fend off smaller creatures that will be jumping and buzzing about. Or perhaps another great beast will enter the fray–an occasion that’s certain to get your heart pumping. Even if you’ve fought the same creature a dozen times before, this capriciousness makes every encounter as thrilling as the last. The moment you hear the soundtrack signal the presence of a great monster, you get that tingle that tells you another fight to the death is about to begin.

This Barroth was clearly paying attention in school on 'stop, drop and roll' day.

This Barroth was clearly paying attention in school on ‘stop, drop and roll’ day.

One of Tri’s great additions to the series is its underwater battles. Many of the monsters are amphibious, so you battle them on both land and under the water. The action is slower underwater than it is on land, as you would expect, and monsters have a whole new set of attacks to contend with there. For example, on land, the grimacing Gobul (think of it as an oversized angler fish) lurches and rolls about while you stab its most vulnerable parts; underwater, it digs under the seabed and dramatically bursts forth from its hideout or sucks you into its toothy mouth. The camera speed is a bit lethargic, but the game controls well when you’re swimming among the fishes–that is, assuming you’re using a Classic Controller or the new Classic Controller Pro. (There’s a bundle available that includes both the game and the Classic Pro.) Fumbling with the remote’s D pad to maneuver the camera while thumbing around to attack and open menus makes using the Wii Remote and Nunchuk the lesser option; the Classic Controllers are much more comfortable. Yet, even if you go with a Classic Controller, you’re stuck reaching for the remote to add a beast to your monster list. Doing so involves opening a menu, grabbing the remote, pointing at a monster onscreen, and dragging an icon into a box at the bottom of the screen–possibly while you are under attack. This awkward system was a terrible idea; fortunately, adding monsters to your list is purely optional, and you only need to do it once per species.

No matter which control method you use, Monster Hunter Tri provides a good challenge. Preparation is the absolute key to success, so you need to take the right supplies for the mission. Take plenty of pickaxes if you need to gather bloodstones; take a few traps and tranquilizer bombs if your goal is to ensnare a monster without killing it. Even the type of armor you equip makes a big difference, making you vulnerable to certain attacks more than others. As long as you’re properly prepared, you’ll rarely feel cheated when a Barroth turns you into a monster meal. As with the other games in the series, Tri’s combat is thoughtfully paced. You can’t mash buttons and expect to emerge victorious. Once an attack animation has begun, you have to wait it out before you can dodge out of the way or start a new barrage. Unfortunately, some animations feel too long; expect to encounter some frustration when you get knocked backward because your character simply had to flex his muscles after quaffing a health potion, for example. But overall, there’s a good, methodical rhythm to the combat that feels appropriate, whether you’re wielding a quick-strike weapon like a sword or a slow, laborious one like the new switch axe.

Exciting online play and beautiful visuals help Monster Hunter Tri finally make good on the series’ enormous potential.

The Good

  • Taking down a huge monster is insanely satisfying
  • Monsters move and act in believable ways
  • Great visuals and animations really pull you in
  • Fun online co-op play
  • Underwater battles are a great twist.

The Bad

  • Forced use of the Wii Remote for cataloging monsters
  • Online synchronization issues
  • Long animations can frustrate.

Battles aren’t just rewarding because of the intrinsic sense of accomplishment they offer, but also because they provide opportunities to collect incredibly important components that grand monsters drop, which can then be forged into new weapons and armor. Much of the equipment looks great, and getting better stuff can make all the difference if you’re having trouble defeating a given foe. There’s always something tantalizing dangling under your nose, pushing you to hunt the monster that may drop that scale you so desperately need. In fact, collecting is a major part of Monster Hunter Tri. You catch bugs, mine for iron, fish, and harvest berries, and most of the ingredients you haul back to the village can be combined to make helpful items. Your chest will eventually be loaded with various objects of differing uses. You can create serums that reveal the locations of enormous monsters on the map, drugs that enhance your attack power, and bombs that temporarily stun your enemies. There are tons of recipes to discover, and it is fun to combine two items you haven’t combined before to see what new concoction will spring forth. You don’t need to go questing to gather these goodies, though: You can head to the nearby Moga Woods, where you can grab the most vital goods, as well as take on the nasty beasts you’ve already defeated in quests.

The Gobul's tail will shock you. Literally.

The Gobul’s tail will shock you. Literally.

Even if you stick to just the single-player experience, you will make one new friend: Cha-Cha, a charming little scamp that joins you on your adventures. Cha-Cha buffs you by performing dances, and he wears various masks that affect his behavior in the field. While wearing the acorn mask, Cha-Cha attacks monsters; while wearing the fluffy mask, he helps you locate your targets. This little fellow isn’t always as useful as you’d like; you might get covered with mud and need him to come bop you on the head to get it off, but he’ll be merrily gathering mushrooms instead. Nevertheless, he’s too adorable to remain angry at for long.

If you really desire companionship during your travels, however, you should head online. It takes a short while to get used to Monster Hunter Tri’s online structure because it’s splintered into various servers and cities. If you’re just hoping to meet up with some buddies to beat up on monsters, you’ll need to jump through a few hoops to find each other and figure out how the whole thing works. But once you’re used to the setup, it’s easy to group up with like-minded players and go hunting for your hulking prey. Cooperative hunts are in a whole different league than their single-player equivalents. Not only is teaming with others inherently more fun than hunting on your own, but having a large beast’s attention divided among multiple foes also allows you to be more aggressive during combat. You can charge up and unleash a wild swinging attack with your hammer while one cohort pokes your quarry with a lance and another blasts away at it with a bowgun. One player will set a shock trap while his or her teammate first distracts the giant beast and then lures it into the trap, where it’s temporarily a sitting duck. Teaming up to take down one of Tri’s big boys is an absolute blast, and everybody gets a fair share of the loot.

The only downside to cooperative hunting is the lack of synchronization among the minion monsters. The small monsters you see aren’t necessarily in the same places as those your comrades see, so your teammates flail about as if fighting invisible enemies. This is a bizarre design choice, though this strange disconnect fortunately doesn’t apply to the big boss fights. Luckily, every other facet of online play is a delight. Arena quests are particularly enjoyable because they let you and a buddy take control of powerful stock characters and pound on a tough monster. Not only are arena fights great fun, but they also provide a tantalizing glimpse at the awesome armor and weapons your own character might one day equip. In town, you can order furniture for your room in the city and even challenge a teammate to an arm-wrestling match. Monster Hunter Tri supports voice chat with Wii Speak, though few players seem to be utilizing it; instead, they’re opting to plug in a USB keyboard, which is an effective alternative. If you’re stuck using the built-in keyboard interface, you’ll be thankful for the set of stock phrases you can quickly enter. If you’d rather have face time with your friends instead, you can export your character to your Wii Remote and head to the arena for a split-screen co-op battle versus a lumbering foe.

Certain weapons dull faster than others. Always keep a large supply of whetstones with you.

Certain weapons dull faster than others. Always keep a large supply of whetstones with you.

Monster Hunter Tri is an absolute marvel to look at; monster animations are astounding while creatures move with exactly the right amount of speed and heft. Every movement connects seamlessly with the next, which goes a long way toward making this fantastical world so believable. While every environment looks great, the underwater vistas are particularly gorgeous. Long-tailed beasts effortlessly swim past you and schools of fish add color to the murk. The sun dances authentically on the water as you swim toward the surface, and the crystal blue waters near one particular cave seem almost magical in spite of the vicious beasts that inhabit them. It’s a shame that Tri’s maps aren’t more open. As in previous games, each region is split into smaller chunks separated by loading screens. (A vicious foe might even knock you into a neighboring zone if you aren’t careful.) But this is a relatively small complaint considering how rich and detailed the game looks. The game’s soundtrack isn’t nearly as evocative as its art, but it does a fine job of announcing danger. The highlights of the sound design aren’t the predictable thumps and thwacks of battle but rather the guttural growls and echoing calls of your gigantic foes. Their deafening roars are vicious and frightening, though even the clattering chatter of smaller creatures strike a menacing chord.

The Monster Hunter series’ migration from the Sony PSP to the Nintendo Wii was a smart one. Using the Classic Controller, you never need to fumble around to position the camera, which means you can focus on fighting monsters–not the controls. And what monsters they are: Small lizards squawk their complaints as you slash your way through their ranks; meaty sea dwellers glide through the deeps; and gigantic tundra-dwelling leeches cling to ceilings, ready to siphon your health away. Taking on the toughest of these terrors is exhilarating, particularly when you join up with other adventurers. Scattered issues, such as online synchronization quirks and a dumb implementation of pointing controls, still prove that the series has some growing up to do. But if you’re hungering for some fun, challenging action and online camaraderie, Monster Hunter Tri will satisfy your cravings.

By Kevin VanOrd

MySims SkyHeroes Review

What starts out as a simple but entertaining aerial jaunt quickly becomes monotonous and shallow, making it hard to justify its price tag.

The Good

  • Simple and responsive controls.

The Bad

  • Cheap enemy AI
  • Teammates don’t really function as teammates
  • Multiplayer has no longevity
  • Little variety to missions.

There’s a scene in the Story mode in MySims SkyHeroes where the elder pilot of SkyForce (the group of pilots fighting the evil MorcuCorp) asks everyone if they know what he’s about to ask them to do. Suddenly, the other pilots of SkyForce have a look of abject apathy on their faces as they realize he’s about to send them on another wargames mission. That same look will suddenly be transposed to your face as you realize that this is the very same dogfighting mission you’ve already played several times before, and it won’t be the last. Therein lies the biggest problem with the single-player experience in SkyHeroes–filling out an entire Story mode with just two game types that hardly ever change over the course of dozens of missions.

Dogfights showcase some really cheap AI.

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The first of these game types you experience in the Story mode is dogfighting, which initially doesn’t seem all that bad. You start out by customizing your pilot, as well as your plane, which is pretty fun because there are plenty of parts to choose from. As you progress through the Story mode, you can unlock additional customization options for your sim, as well as necessary upgrades to your plane. If you get far enough, characters from other EA games, like Commander Shepard from Mass Effect or Isaac Clark from Dead Space become available. Sadly, these don’t really act as much incentive to play through the Story mode because they’re available from the start in the quickplay option. Additionally, their inclusion is just cosmetic as you have access to the same aerial maneuvers (barrel rolls, flips, and the like performed with a flip of the Wii remote or by pressing the D pad), as well as weaponry in the form of machine guns and power-ups scattered throughout a map.

The responsive and straightforward controls in SkyHeroes make it easy to jump right in and start your career as an ace dogfighter. But these confrontations quickly falter after that because of the way both enemy AI and teammate AI function during a match. To put it simply, enemy fighters cheat in some fairly ridiculous ways. Once you have a foe in your sights and then launch seeking missiles, they have the uncanny ability to nearly always avoid them with successive evasive moves that seem almost impossible to perform on your own. Secondly, if you engage enemies close to objects in the environment, like a volcano for example, they will almost always perform exasperatingly precise maneuvers while making contact with the surface of the object. This scenario should make them easy kills, but the fact that collision damage doesn’t really factor into the game makes it that much easier for AI to cheat.

What makes these dogfighting missions in the Story mode all the more infuriating is that your so-called teammates aren’t really on your team. They have a tendency to swoop in and steal your kills after you’ve chased an obnoxious AI pilot all over the map and worn them down.. Normally, this wouldn’t be so bad if that meant they didn’t also steal points necessary to progress past the mission at hand–just imagine that happening in the closing seconds of a match and you can picture how completely frustrating these dogfights can be. Ultimately, you’re not only competing against enemies, but you’re also frequently competing against teammates that are supposed to be on your side.

There's very little variety to the types of missions available in the story mode.

There’s very little variety to the types of missions available in the story mode.

Suffering through this same scenario repeatedly makes the Story mode in SkyHeroes a tedious affair–the only respite is the second game type available: races. Fortunately, the point of races really isn’t to take down enemy pilots, so it doesn’t possess the same irritating characteristics as the dogfighting, but it does have a set of its own unique problems–the most egregious of which is the horrid rubber-band AI. No matter what you do, it’s nearly impossible to be in first for the majority of the race, unless you get lucky with power-ups like the shield or the speed boost. Still, another pilot will almost always shoot you down or simply overtake your plane in a manner of seconds, but if you happen to fall behind, then all of the pilots in the course will slow down until you get back into a competitive zone. It’s just not fun when it feels like no amount of skill really factors into your race performance. As long as you hit all the gates in proper order and don’t do anything terrifically stupid, you should be fine.

There are some slight variations to the mission structure where you have to take down some stationary targets, but for the most part, it’s just dogfighting and racing in the Story mode with all of their shortcomings in tow. Thankfully, there are online and local splitscreen multiplayer options in SkyHeroes where you can jump into one of these two types of matches (as teammates or in a free-for-all) without the sometimes humorous but often unnecessary story elements bogging everything down. Certainly, there’s some fun to be had in multiplayer, particularly for newcomers who might get a thrill out of taking down their buddies without having to worry about horrible AI. But it’s short lived. Experienced pilots will often find themselves circling each other until one decides to break off out of boredom and while the weapon power-ups sometimes shift the balance of a match, they’re not all that difficult to avoid.

Not surprisingly, SkyHeroes’ visuals fall in-line with the overall simplicity of the game. There’s a wide variety of themes for each environment, but none of them are particularly detailed or remarkable in any specific way. The character designs are pretty great–if not stereotypical–cartoon-ish representations of pop-culture groups that make the game more engaging for children and create opportunities for some tame adult humor. Meanwhile, the music doesn’t really fit with the overall theme of the game. In fact, it often sounds like it would be better suited to some big blockbuster action movie than to a semi-whimsical dogfighting game. Granted, it’s not so jarring as to become a distraction, but it sounds out of place.

Racing is a little less frustrating than dogfighting.

Racing is a little less frustrating than dogfighting.

The Wii version of MySims SkyHeroes comes with a full retail price, and the game tries its best to make it worth the cost. The problem is SkyHeroes stretches two relatively shallow, albeit accessible, game types over an excessively long Story mode where their AI problems are put on display over and over again. The multiplayer can be a source of some entertainment, but only lasts as long as the learning curve does–which is to say, not that long. Once players become experienced, it often just becomes a race to see who can gain the strongest power-ups while they’re not flying in circles. This might have worked well as a smaller, more limited, and cheaper product, but as a full retail offering, SkyHeroes never gets off the ground.

By Giancarlo Varanini

Mario Party 9 Review

Though an enjoyable addition to the series, Mario Party 9 is much too familiar and predictable.

The Good

  • Fun multiplayer action
  • Wide variety of minigames
  • Cheerful, colorful visuals.

The Bad

  • Little lasting appeal
  • Far too much emphasis on chance
  • Solo mode is tedious and required for unlocks
  • It’s all too familiar.

If Mario Party 9 were an actual party, it’d be a high school reunion. You turn up, look around, see all your old friends, and think “Hey, you guys have changed!” But within five minutes, you realize that beneath the flashy clothes or new facial hair, they’re much the same people. That is what playing Mario Party 9 feels like. There are changes, sure, and frequently, they’re for the better. But the improvements are largely superficial. There’s no getting around the fact this is the ninth console iteration of a bunch of minigames in a board-game wrapping, and after this many entries in the series, the formula feels tired.

Mario and friends traverse a series of themed boards, as usual.

Mario and friends traverse a series of themed boards, as usual.

The goal is to collect the ministars that can be picked up while moving around the board or won during minigames. Up to four players travel around the boards together on a vehicle. The player whose turn it is (the captain) controls the vehicle by way of dice rolls and can reap the rewards (or punishments) for being in charge. Each of the boards has a theme that comes complete with unique benefits (such as dolphins that lead you to bonus areas) and hazards (such as a hot potato bomb that drains the unlucky captain’s stars).

Boards are littered with ministars that award either positive or negative points, depending on their color. Because the captain reaps all the rewards (or suffers the punishment) there is strategy involved in setting yourself up for a windfall. However, as is customary in the series, chance is the ultimate decider of who wins and loses. The luck factor is even more apparent when you land on a square with Bowser’s picture emblazoned on it. These squares shuffle up the standings, potentially destroying any progress you’ve made. Random chance having such a huge impact on who wins is a serious detriment, and your tolerance for this unpredictability goes a long way toward determining how much fun Mario Party 9 is.

The minigames are where Mario Party 9 shines, and in the heat of competition you’ll bump your opponents out the way to catch thrown hula hoops, chase each other down in a variety of vehicles, or leap across moving platforms. There are some more thoughtful, slower-paced challenges, too: memory games, jigsaw puzzles, and pattern-recognition tests. The majority of the minigames are a free-for-all, with every player for himself or herself, but sometimes the current captain has to face off against the other players working together as a team. These can be particularly rewarding, especially if you’re the captain and manage to evade three friends all gunning for you.

The minigames can provide frantic fun for you and up to three others.

The minigames can provide frantic fun for you and up to three others.

For the most part, the minigames rely on traditional directional pad and button controls, with the remote held sideways, though there are some exceptions. Those minigames that feature gesture or pointer controls are usually easy to get the hang of, so there’s little to prevent inexperienced players from joining the fold. The single problematic minigame is one where you have to turn the dial of a safe–here, fussy controls needlessly complicate things.

Such problems thankfully don’t exist in boss confrontations. Frequently, they have you competing against each other as much as the boss character, such as bouncing each other out of the way as you try to stomp Wiggler or rigging a rotating platform so a rival is in the path of an angry whomp. Each board features two boss fights and, much like the majority of the minigames, they are genuinely good fun.

The minigames make Mario Party 9 entertaining for a few hours, and there’s enough content to make it worth coming back for more. But be warned: because luck is such an important factor, it’s highly preferable to play with friends. It’s easier to overlook the problems when you have a real-life companion to moan, shout, or throw picked onions at when you lose half of your stars in a way you couldn’t avoid. In contrast, playing against the AI is a tedious and tiresome affair. Unfortunately, if you want to access all the content, you don’t have much choice.

Mario Party 9 contains a single-player story mode, in which the nefarious Bowser and the equally nefarious Bowser Jr. have stolen the world’s ministars. This serves as an hour-long introduction and isn’t very engaging. Ringing up a victory is easy because you only have to stop one AI character from winning (rather than winning yourself), and each game lasts too long. Unfortunately, to unlock the sixth board and two of the 12 characters, you have to complete this mode, which is a frustrating requirement.

You can't shake the feeling you've seen this all before.

You can’t shake the feeling you’ve seen this all before.

Beyond the Party mode and the tedious Story mode, there are a host of unlockables that can be purchased with party points (earned simply by playing the game). These include a Donkey Kong-themed board, new vehicles to traverse the boards in, and constellations to marvel at through a telescope (read: a waste of points until you’ve unlocked everything meaningful). The minigames are also playable by themselves, should you fancy diving right in with friends, and there are four extended remix games, including a rather good Hexic HD-like shape-swapping puzzle game.

Overall, Mario Party 9 is a decent package with a lot of content, even if the Story mode is something you’ll wish you could avoid. It’s colorful, good looking, and fun with others, but after so many games, the appeal just isn’t going to last for many people. There’s no denying that what Mario Party 9 does, it largely does well; it’s just that it’s largely been doing it well for nine console games and two handheld games. Once you’ve spent a few hours with mates, seen all the different boards, and played all the minigames, there’s very little incentive to return. Much like that high school reunion, it is fun for a night, but you won’t have any hesitation about moving on.

By Ashton Raze

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