Xbox’s latest Summer of Arcade promotion finishes as strongly as it began. “Monday Night Combat” and “Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light” won’t set the art-game crowd on flights of furious goatee-stroking, but they do remind us that games should be fun.

The class-based third-person shooter “Monday Night Combat” squeezes “Team Fortress 2,” “Monday Night Football” and tower defense trappings into a quality multiplayer shooter. There might not be anything new here, and the frequent attempts at humor fall flat. Still, it’s more fun than watching football.

Pick from a handful of classes – the standard-issue foot soldier, the assassin, a support unit that’s both medic and engineer – and start shooting. The goal is to protect your team’s moneyball from either an opposing team of real-life players or a steady stream of computer-controlled robot opponents. Killing enemies wins you money, which can be spent to upgrade your character, create robot allies or build up defensive turrets around your base.

The highlight is the addictive Crossfire mode, in which two teams of up to six try to destroy each other’s moneyball. Unlike a humdrum death match, Crossfire requires strategy and teamwork. It’s vital to maintain turrets and generate a steady stream of robotic cannon fodder while still picking off opponents as often as possible. Crossfire can be a mess with the wrong teammates, but it feels great when your crew meshes.

“Monday Night Combat” skimps on game modes, and individual systems tend to be shallow. Still, the game has layers, and all the separate strands come together to create a surprisingly deep game.

Uber Entertainment for Xbox Live Arcade. Rated T for teen.

“LARA CROFT AND THE GUARDIAN OF LIGHT”

Crystal Dynamics for Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and PC. Rated T for teen.

Grade: B

Forget “Tomb Raider” – “Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light” isn’t just another third-person platformer. This action-puzzler feels more like a modern day “Gauntlet,” complete with an overhead camera and overwhelming streams of monsters. Both also punish the antisocial and friendless by emphasizing cooperation. You can spelunk solo, but it’s easier with a pal, either locally or (after a patch arrives in September) online.

You play as Croft or the titular Guardian of Light, an ancient magical Mayan named Totec. Together or alone you’ll collect eldritch treasures and slay countless monsters while solving simple puzzles in a number of ways. You’ll swing from Lara’s grappling hook; make impromptu steps with mystical spears; roll giant metal balls over pressure-sensitive plates; and hit switches with gunfire or triggered explosions. It’s an exciting and welcome change from the standard “Tomb Raider” formula.

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Same Old Family

August 23, 2010

My full review of “Mafia II” will run in the Herald soon. Here are a few thoughts until then.

When Vito Scaletta returns home from the Western Front, “Mafia II” introduces Empire Bay with a panoramic view of a gorgeous snow-covered city. I walked slowly with Vito through his old neighborhood, admiring the classic cars and architecture, eavesdropping on Vito’s conversations with old friends, and soaking in “Let It Snow” and the ambient sounds of Little Italy. It’s a beautiful introduction, and for a short time “Mafia II” appears to be more about environment than violence. And then Vito straight-up murders six guys over a cheap car.

After that outburst, “Mafia II” briefly does something interesting: it lets Vito do honest work. He gets a job down at the docks, loading dozens of crates onto the back of a truck for the promise of a crisp new ten-dollar bill. That’s a fraction of what he earned stealing a car and murdering a half-dozen men. Vito’s dock work isn’t the sarcastic menial labor of “No More Heroes”, but a seemingly genuine proposition: do this boring, backbreaking, but completely legitimate work, and earn a little bit of money the right way.

After loading the first box a message appears saying that Vito can leave whenever he wants. I have him carry another box, and then two more, each minute-long trip book-ended by reminders that Vito can quit at any point. The game taunts me, testing my dedication to the straight and narrow. I flip the bird and get back to work. And then the game changes the rules: Vito quits after five boxes. He says he’s done, and nothing I do will change that. The game removes my ability to choose, pushing crime as the only available career. Within minutes of quitting this honest job Vito’s busting heads to collect protection money for a crew of stereotypical wiseguys.

Obviously the kids won’t go crazy over a 1940’s dockwalloping sim. Still, it’s a shame to create a city as beautiful as Empire Bay and then use it primarily as a backdrop for spree killing. Hauling boxes around isn’t fun, in the traditional sense, but neither is filling up the local cemetery without a compelling reason. Even worse, Vito’s buddy dismisses the first gunfight as insignificant because the victims are all black. That only reinforces how much more interesting this game could be if it was about African-Americans in the 1940s instead of well-worn mobster types.

There’s beauty and intelligence in “Mafia II”, but so far it’s just another shooting gallery at heart. That makes the glimpses of what it could be even more dispiriting. I accept that a story about the mob will involve violence. Wouldn’t that violence mean more, both to the story and the player, if it was doled out sparingly? If, instead of a steady stream of murders in broad daylight, Vito’s story was punctuated with occasional outbursts of violence, both expected and unexpected? Because right now “Mafia II” is just a high-tech retread of “Hogan’s Alley” with a Godfather fixation. Oh, and completely anachronistic soft-core pornography.

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is a rarity: It’s a licensed video game worth playing.

Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series of Scott Pilgrim comics is an exuberantly over-the-top character study of a 23-year-old obsessed with video games, indie rock and himself. It’s goofy, ridiculous fun that gradually packs a surprising emotional wallop. The game is one-dimensional in comparison, but this pure shot of the whimsical brutality found in the comic’s fight scenes is so fun that you won’t even care.

“Scott Pilgrim” is a side-scrolling beat-’em-up that pays blatant tribute to old classics such as “Double Dragon,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and basically every “Super Mario” game released before 1996. It transforms O’Malley’s designs into a tasty brew of 8- and 16-bit graphics, with large sprites and bright primary colors straight from 1990.

Some of the references are merely aesthetic, like a level-select screen that looks like “Super Mario World” if Mario ditched the Mushroom Kingdom for Toronto. Others are more substantial, including the game’s almost straight-up appropriation of “River City Ransom,” a cult NES brawler from 1989.

Like “Ransom,” “Scott Pilgrim” adds role-playing elements to its street-fighting action. You’ll level up and earn new attacks through experience points, and can buy power-ups at stores throughout the game. Instead of potions or pills, you heal up with sushi, burgers and other real-life foodstuffs, just like “River City Ransom.”

The story runs alongside the comics and the movie. Scott Pilgrim has to fight his new girlfriend’s seven evil exes, each one the final boss of a different level. Scott’s helped by his girlfriend Ramona and his band mates Stephen Stills and Kim Pine. There’s local co-op for up to four players, with special cooperative taunts and attacks. Unfortunately there’s no concession to modern gaming in the form of online co-op.

There are flashes of ingenuity on each level, like the paparazzi and Godzilla-suited toughs who pummel you on the set of one ex’s latest action film. The brawling grows repetitive over time, though, and the difficulty is prohibitive without friends.

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is the type of game you’d play with pals at the arcade back in 1990. It impressively captures the spirit of both those old brawlers and O’Malley’s comics. The sugar rush burns off quickly, though, especially if you’re playing alone.

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It sounds like the set-up to a bad joke. When Man Forever take the stage at Great Scott in Allston this weekend, the band will run five or six drummers deep. Instead of changing lightbulbs or debating the finer points of Neil Peart, they’ll unleash a dense flurry of tangled rhythms and percussive noise. Expect the drumming analogue to Glenn Branca’s guitar orchestras, or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

The project is the manifestation of one man’s obsession with rhythm and physical exhaustion. John Colpitts, also known as Kid Millions and regarded as one of the most talented and exciting drummers of the day, has kept the frantic pulse of psych-rock juggernauts Oneida since their inception while also leading drum sections at the Boredoms’ Boadrum events. He’s a serious scholar of the skins, and about as indefatigable as man gets. He formed Man Forever after watching the New York classical band Fireworks Ensemble run through Metal Machine Music.

“It brought together a few separate strands in my mind,” he says. “The program notes described how Lou Reed tuned his guitars in fifths and manipulated tape speeds — which got me thinking about a conversation I’d had with [Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer] Brian Chase about intonation and drum tuning. During the concert, I knew I wanted to try applying all these ideas to a solo album.”

Colpitts had a standing offer to release a solo album though vinyl boutique label St Ives. A week after the show, he recorded Man Forever’s debut, with help from Chase and bassist Richard Hoffman of Brooklyn psych trio Sightings. Colpitts layered multiple tracks of improvised drum fills and patterns, each track precisely tuned to different variations of B and F-sharp, with Hoffman’s bass rumbling in the background. The result sounds like a pick-up team of free-jazz drummers jamming in the middle of an avalanche.

But re-creating Man Forever live isn’t easy. “We tune each drum to a specific pitch,” Colpitts explains, “which is a huge time commitment. To keep our sanity, we limit the drummers and drums. No fewer than five, no more than seven, unless drummers can tune their own drums to pitches. Then the sky’s the limit.”

Colpitts has recruited an impressive crew for Man Forever’s live performances. In addition to Chase, the deep roster has included Shahin Motia of the Ex-Models, Allison Busch of Awesome Color, Andrew Barker of the Gold Sparkle Band, and Greg Fox of Teeth Mountain. Together they put in total effort with zero practice, filling the “performance space with colliding tones,” as Colpitts puts it. “There’s no preparation for Man Forever. This isn’t something I want to rehearse. It’s not about doing it in a practice space. The audience is a big part of it. It’s about performance and being in a new space, tuning, and presenting this thing to people.”

That “thing” is a feat of strength and will for the performers. Man Forever are an endurance test, an Iditarod for drummers that produces a stimulating outburst of noise and improvised music.

“It’s all mental,” is how Colpitts describes it. It’s not about flashy fills or pro chops — it’s about “bumping up against your physical limits, and in a way that helps to dictate the piece. You’re supposed to play as hard as possible, reach down into yourself and find out what your limits are, and what preoccupies you. What can survive that kind of performance as coherent thoughts. But you have to survive it as well, and pace yourself somehow. It’s a balance. Man Forever is like sprinting for 40 minutes.”

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The name says “Harmony of Despair,” but the latest “Castlevania” subtitle should be “Concerto of Socialism.” You can’t survive this game without the help of others.

Originally a traditional level-based action platformer with a gothic horror aesthetic, “Castlevania” gradually matured into a non-linear adventure game strongly influenced by “Metroid” and role-playing games. Instead of walking left to right and killing everything in sight, 1997’s beloved “Symphony of the Night” let you freely explore Dracula’s castle – discovering power-ups, leveling up stats and backtracking when necessary.

“Harmony of Despair” tries to unite those two traditions, while also introducing an online co-op mode for up to six players. The game is split into six levels, each one adapted from previous “Castlevania” games. You’re given a half-hour to track down and kill each level’s boss. Along the way you’ll slaughter dozens of monsters while collecting armor, secondary weapons and gold, which can be used to buy even better equipment.

The six playable characters, each from past “Castlevania” games, have different strengths and skills. Some cast spells, one turns into a cloud of fog and another somehow refashions the souls of defeated enemies into new attacks. Each can equip various weapons and pieces of armor, but most of the items have little impact upon any of the characters’ statistics.

Because characters don’t get that much stronger as they progress, co-op is essential. I died a lot when I played alone, barely beating the first chapter after several tries. The second level is practically impossible without friends. Unlike most games from the last decade, death has actual meaning in “Harmony of Despair.” There are no checkpoints here, no moments frozen in time that you can return to when a massive shambling Frankenstein lightning bolts you into ash. You start back at the very beginning of the level, like a good arcade warrior from the pre-gamesave era. It’s intensely frustrating.

The game is far more manageable with friends. You’re free to travel the large levels individually, picking up items and opening doors on opposite ends of the level to save time. Certain items let you revive fallen partners. The bosses are challenging, but not nearly as torturous as they are in the single-player mode. Still, “Harmony of Despair” is a clumsy, disappointing mash-up of older and better “Castlevania” games.

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“Hydro Thunder Hurricane,” the latest Xbox Live Summer of Arcade release, seals it: 2010 is the year I get back into racing games.

It’s hard to resist “Split/Second’s” Bruckheimerian explosions, the neon violence of “Blur,” and the “Mario Kart” meets “LittleBigPlanet” charm of “ModNation Racers.” But “Hydro Thunder Hurricane,” a frantic boat-racing game blissfully disconnected from anything resembling reality, might be the best of the bunch.

Like the best racers, “Hydro Thunder” is simple but engaging, and enough of a challenge for any proud competitor. It’s an arcade-style racer based on the timeless hook of one-upmanship. Winning races unlocks new courses and faster boats, but the real thrill is beating the next best time on the online leader board.

“Hydro Thunder” avoids the sterile realism of “Forza” and “Gran Turismo.” Instead of luxury car fetishism, it features nine boats with the bright colors and fanciful designs of toys. It runs fast, with boost charges, ramps and waves shooting you through the course. There are eight locations in all, each one with multiple secret passages and increasingly ridiculous environments. You’ll race through Valhalla, hang out with a sea serpent and break into Area 51. Apparently aliens are real, and they come via speedboat.

Three race types offer limited variety. Sixteen boats scramble to cross the finish line in the standard head-to-head race, with prizes for the top three finishers. The other two modes test your handling skills, as you’ll have to dodge explosive barrels in Gauntlet races and motor through a chain of rings in Ring Master challenges. There’s also online multiplayer for every event.

Ring Master is a pain. You’re penalized a second or two for every ring you miss. It demands speed and perfect handling, but even then you may not win, as computer opponents regularly score implausible times.
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Ring Master also complicates the championship events, which are minitournaments of two or more races. The same computer-controlled players finish at the top of every event, so you can’t afford to mess up a single race. That makes Ring Master even more frustrating.

Still, “Hydro Thunder Hurricane” is tremendously fun. It’s a narrative-free, unpretentious reminder that video games, in their most classic form, are about redoing the same thing a little bit better every time. And since “Hydro Thunder Hurricane” is about as addictive as gaming gets, you’ll do the same thing until you fall asleep on your couch.

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