Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Boom Boom or Grand Theft Auto IV

A game like "Grand Theft Auto IV" is designed for die-hards who can drive, shoot and talk on a cell phone (virtually, that is) simultaneously. After a few hours, though, you long for something simpler, where you're only doing one thing at a time. Such simple pleasures should be part of any gamer's diet, especially if you want to play with friends who aren't as hardcore.

_"Boom Blox" (Electronic Arts, for the Wii, $39.99): This is the first fruit of a much ballyhooed collaboration between EA and Steven Spielberg, but if you're expecting an Indiana Jones-style spectacle, you'll be disappointed. On the other hand, if you're seeking a fun-for-the-whole-family experience, "Boom Blox" delivers.

The core gameplay involves one action: throwing a ball at a pile of blocks. Some blocks disappear when you hit them; other cause explosions or fireworks. Most of the time the object is to knock over the entire structure, but you may be limited to a certain number of balls or score more points for hitting particular blocks. There's also a Jenga-like game in which you want to remove as many blocks as possible before the tower topples.

For such a simple concept, "Boom Blox" has a lot of variety, with dozens of single-player puzzles and a good assortment of lively multiplayer modes. The graphics are sharp and colorful, and the physics — the way the blocks tumble and fall — seem dead-on. It's one of the Wii's best party games, accessible enough for just about anyone. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

_"Echochrome" (Sony, for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, $9.99): In this age of ever more realistic computer graphics, you wouldn't expect to see a game made up entirely of black-and-white line drawings. But beneath the bare-bones appearance of "Echochrome" lies a game that's unusually challenging and sophisticated.

Each level is a three-dimensional maze, with the ideal path typically blocked by bottomless pits or impassable gaps. The trick is that you have to rotate the maze, changing your perspective so that disconnected paths connect and obstacles are hidden. For example, if you move a post in front of a hole, the hole essentially ceases to exist, so your character can slide right across it.

It's quite trippy, reminiscent of the M.C. Escher posters decorating many a dorm room. (The designers have acknowledged the debt to Escher.) The elegant graphics combine with a mellow violin soundtrack to create a weirdly soothing experience, even though some of the mazes are quite difficult. "Echochrome" demands a kind of thinking that video games usually don't require, and it's the most distinctive puzzle game in years. Three-and-a-half stars.

_"Lost Cities" (Sierra, for the Xbox 360, $10): Here's a fast-moving card game that should appeal to Xbox Live players who have grown weary of "Uno." The 60-card deck has five colors, each with three "investment" cards and the numbers 2-10. The object is to build "expeditions," starting with investments and working up through higher numbers. Sounds simple, right?

The twist is that if you start an expedition but don't make much progress, you lose points. Ideally, then, you want at least four cards of the same color before embarking, but of course that isn't always possible. Designed by German board-game legend Reiner Knizia, "Lost Cities" offers a balanced mix of luck and strategy.

A game only takes about five minutes, which feels a little unsatisfying. And it hasn't yet attracted a big crowd of Xbox Live fans, so it can be difficult to find online competition. "Lost Cities" doesn't appear to have the staying power of last year's "Catan," another electronic version of a German game, but it's a decent diversion if you only have a little bit of time to spare. Two-and-a-half stars.

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