Don’t banish “Epic Mickey” to the kid’s table just because it stars the world’s most famous cartoon character. Disney’s new 3D action-adventure-platformer isn’t a light-hearted romp, but a serious game that would please all ages if it was actually fun to play.

Acclaimed game designer Warren Spector drew on all facets of Mickey’s character, from his early days as an incorrigible scamp to the bland but lovable nice guy he eventually became, to build a morality system that’s often subtler than “Fallout 3” or the “Fable” series. “Epic Mickey” also searches for pathos in the fate of lesser characters forgotten in the wake of Mickey’s overwhelming popularity.

The early promotion of “Epic Mickey” hinted at a dystopian take on the happiest place on Earth, with dilapidated rides and crumbling robotic Goofys. The final product isn’t so disturbing, but the tone and atmosphere are not what you’d expect from a Mickey Mouse game. It’s not quite Disney’s dream debased, but it’s surprising to see a critique of consumer culture and runaway merchandising in a Disney product, even if it’s wrapped up in a loving tribute to the company’s history.

The story starts when Mickey walks through a mirror into Wasteland, a familiar but decaying world of forgotten cartoon characters overseen by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Mickey’s armed with a magic pen that can shoot paint or paint thinner. You solve puzzles by fleshing out objects in the game world with paint or making them disappear with thinner, and can use either spray to defeat enemies.

“Epic Mickey” just isn’t that much fun to play, which is a pretty big problem for a video game. The camera often works against you, locking at bad angles, refusing to focus on what you want to look at, and occasionally even cutting Mickey completely out of view. Mickey’s paint and thinner streams regularly hit the ground instead of the target in your crosshairs. It’s a struggle to fight monsters in close quarters as contact will often knock either Mickey or your enemy out of view. The first two hours are a slow, uneventful slog.

The story is smart, and the side-scrolling levels that look like classic Mickey cartoons are both fun and impressive. Too bad the game itself feels rushed and outdated. “Epic Mickey” challenges you to think, but challenges you even more to excuse poor design decisions.



Sony’s “God of War” is like the heads of the mighty Hydra – every time you polish one off, two more take its place.

Early this year came “Dante’s Inferno,” an unintentionally hilarious union of creepy videogame machismo and medieval Italian poetry. Now, the handheld prequel “God of War: Ghost of Sparta” and the clearly inspired “Castlevania: Lords of Shadow” provide all the violence and bloodshed you could possibly want.

“Lords of Shadow” shares a name with Konami’s long-running series of Dracula-plagued platformers, but this 3-D action game owes more to Sony. The combat consists of “God”-style combos with weapons that sweep across the screen and hit several foes at once. Classic “Castlevania” enemies are replaced with generic monsters that often only fall after quick-time events, which are brief spurts of “Simon says” button-mashing found in every “God of War” game.

Over time, “Lords of Shadow” focuses more on puzzle-solving and exploration than “God of War,” which can be suffocatingly linear, like a runaway roller coaster. “Lords” gives you more control over your experience, trusting you to eventually find the correct solution to a puzzle or right path to travel down. That interaction is offset by the almost total absence of the technologically amazing set pieces that make “God of War” so thrilling to play.

Over time, “Lords of Shadow’s” influences become so blatant and diverse that it’s no longer fair to call it a “God” rip-off. There are boss battles right out of “Shadow of the Colossus” and platforming sections similar to “Uncharted.” “Lords of Shadow” is too busy lifting from other games to ever forge its own identity. The most distinctive thing about the game is the narration before each scene, with Patrick Stewart dramatically orating some of the most inane, overwritten prose you’ll ever hear.

Don’t mess around with copycats. If you’re looking for an appropriate follow-up to the blood-soaked action of “God of War 3,” go straight to “God of War: Ghost of Sparta.” It plops everything you expect from a “God of War” into your PSP, with over-the-top aggression and disgusting violence. If you can get past the miserable lead character, you’ll find a satisfying and visually impressive (albeit short) action game that lives up to the franchise’s tradition despite the inferior technology of a handheld.


Donkey Kong is not the most original character. He’s a giant gorilla who kidnaps ladies and climbs buildings. Sound familiar? His stylishly tousled hair and loosened necktie elevate him past rip-off status, though, making him look less like a monster and more like a junior stockbroker on a bender. It also helps that he has starred in some darn good video games.

“Donkey Kong Country Returns” is a throwback to the side-scrolling “Donkey Kong Country” franchise that was popular in the mid-1990s. Like those old Super Nintendo chestnuts, “Returns” finds the big guy and his little buddy Diddy Kong jumping and swinging through dozens of levels in a quest to recover stolen bananas.

It’s a traditional side-scrolling platformer, with Donkey Kong avoiding obstacles while collecting coins, puzzle pieces and those tasty bananas. Since it’s on the Wii, you shake the remote and nunchuck to trigger special moves. Donkey pounds on the ground like bongos, sending nearby enemies into the air, or cannonballs toward them with a deadly roll. A second player can jump in as Diddy, who can briefly fly with a jetpack, or just chill out on Donkey’s back.

It’s remarkably faithful to the series but spruced up with the Wii’s more advanced technology. Some levels are as unforgiving as the brutally difficult platformers of the past, which sets this apart from the low-pressure “Kirby’s Epic Yarn.” It’s not as charming, addictive or whimsical as the “Super Mario” franchise, but it’ll do.

Donkey Kong also pops up in “Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem,” the third in a series of handheld puzzle games starring the big monkey and a series of miniature Mario robots. “Mini-Land Mayhem” is a full retail release, so it has more levels than last year’s downloadable “Minis March Again!” Other than that, it’s basically the same game, a Mario-laced spin on the classic “Lemmings” formula.

You shepherd the self-propelled mini-Marios past obstacles and to the exit door by drawing bridges and ramps with the DS stylus. At the end of each of the eight worlds, you face off against Donkey Kong in a boss battle that’s more frustrating than complicated. The puzzles are rarely challenging, but there’s still a sense of accomplishment when you finish a level. “Mini-Land Mayhem” is minor but enjoyable. You’ll probably spend more time with the “Construction Zone” level editor than with the predesigned levels.


“Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood” arrives quickly after last year’s “Assassin’s Creed II”. Short development times often result in half-baked cash-ins, but don’t worry. Thanks to a fine solo campaign and an excellent new multiplayer mode, this is the best “Assassin’s Creed” yet.

Ezio Auditore da Firenze, the Italian playboy from “Assassin’s Creed II”, returns in the single-player story. At the end of “Creed II” Ezio spares the life of Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander VI. Rome suffers thanks to this mercy, and “Brotherhood” follows Ezio and his team of assassins as they free the city from the corrupt rule of the Borgias and their fellow Templars.

“Brotherhood” plays much like its predecessor, with Ezio scampering through realistically recreated Renaissance Italian environments. Instead of the multiple cities of previous “Creed” games, “Brotherhood” sticks almost entirely to Rome. It’s a massive city, bigger than any of the series’ previous locales, with more iconic and impressive buildings to monkey around on.

Ezio can climb up almost any building in Rome, and combat still depends on well-timed dodges and counters. Various side-missions vary up the action. There are new Borgia towers that need to be stormed and burned down, and disgruntled citizens can be recruited and trained to be assassins. You can call on those recruits for help when attacking towers, and they become more effective as they gain experience and level up. It’s a minor change to the “Creed” playbook, but the back-up helps with some of the more difficult challenges.

But forget all that. The multiplayer is why you should play “Brotherhood”. It’s the best online multiplayer I’ve played this year.

This isn’t a reflex-based FPS kill-a-thon. You and up to seven other players pick from a handful of character skins and then try to assassinate each other on a variety of maps adapted from “Brotherhood” and “Assassin’s Creed II”. You’re given a specific target to assassinate, and your points for each kill depends on how secretively or acrobatically you carry out the contract. The map is littered with random non-playable characters that share the same character skins, distracting you from your target. The trick is picking out your prey among the crowd and killing them without being noticed. It’s a slow-paced, pressure-packed game of observation that’ll make you paranoid. And with solo, two-player, and four-player team modes, there’s all sorts of ways to assassinate your friends.