Sony Gets Its Online Games On

Friday, September 5, 2008

Of the three manufacturers of video game consoles, Microsoft was the first to embrace online gaming, and its Xbox Live has become essential to anyone who wants to play against faraway competitors. Sony and Nintendo are trying to catch up, with the PlayStation Network and the Virtual Console, respectively. PSN has more momentum. It's home to such solid multi-player games as Warhawk and Metal Gear Online, and future projects, such as Home, DC Universe Online and MAG (a 256-player war game), promise to stretch Internet-connected play in innovative ways. Sony also lets you download games directly to your PS3 hard drive. The library isn't as impressive as Microsoft's or Nintendo's, but there are some gems (Echochrome, PixelJunk Monsters) that you can find only on PSN. Here are three games that bring fresh ideas to the network and may provide hints of what's in store for PlayStation die-hards.

Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest for Booty (Everyone 10+; PlayStation 3, $15; Sony) At the end of last year's Tools of Destruction, Clank disappeared with a tribe of his fellow robots. As this new chapter begins, Ratchet (the furry half of the duo) discovers that the pirate Captain Darkwater might know where Clank went. Unfortunately, Darkwater is dead, so Ratchet must search for the scurvy seadog's treasure in hopes of finding a clue. Quest for Booty plays like a stripped-down version of its predecessor, leaving out the side missions and mini-games in favor of straight-ahead action. Even Ratchet's impressive arsenal of wacky weapons has been scaled back: For much of the game, his only tool is his trusty wrench. There are still plenty of nifty puzzles and running-and-jumping action, though, so things never slow down. For a project that's really a stopgap between full-fledged Ratchet & Clank adventures, Quest for Booty still delivers the brilliant animation and screwball humor we've come to expect from the developers at Insomniac Games. It takes only about three hours to finish, but it's a tasty appetizer until the next main course arrives next year.

PixelJunk Eden (Everyone; PlayStation 3, $10; Sony) Q-Games, based in Kyoto, Japan, has released three very different titles for PSN: the slot-car game PixelJunk Racers, the strategy game PixelJunk Monsters and the uncategorizable PixelJunk Eden, which looks like no game you've ever seen. Each level begins in an underpopulated garden with a minuscule hero who can swing and jump from leaf to leaf. When he swings into a "prowler," it releases pollen, which helps more plants grow. The goal is to grow the plants high enough to reach the prized "Spectra." The psychedelic visuals and techno soundtrack give PixelJunk Eden a trippy vibe, but its controls take getting used to and could frustrate casual gamers. Also frustrating is an unforgiving timer, which forces you to rush through levels instead of allowing you to admire your gardening skills. Still, the deeper you get into Eden, the more satisfying it becomes, with challenges that cleverly expand upon the minimalist approach of the early levels.

Siren: Blood Curse (Mature; PlayStation 3, $15 for four episodes, $40 for 12 episodes; Sony) In an interesting experiment in episodic gaming, Sony has retooled the overlooked 2004 title Siren, chopping it up into a dozen chapters and setting them loose on PSN. The graphics aren't much better than they were on the PlayStation 2, but the developers have tightened up the gameplay and added American characters. In the first episode, a U.S. camera crew stumbles across a Japanese village populated by zombies, and you briefly assume the role of a college student who is trying to escape from an undead cop. In later episodes you experience the events through different characters' eyes, at times even through the eyes of the zombies. It's an effective survival horror adventure, but the episodic structure doesn't help, mainly because the individual chapters take so long to download and install. Also, the early chapters are very short (about 20 minutes), which may dissuade cost-conscious players from downloading the entire run. I'm hoping Sony takes more chances on episodic games, but next time its developers need to build one from scratch.

-- Lou Kesten, Associated Press

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