3 1/2 stars = Very good
If you had but one day to live, would you check off everything on your bucket list that you could or would you fight to give yourself another day?
The latter makes up the paper-thin story of "Pikmin 3" (Wii U; Nintendo; E, for Everyone), but gamers should hardly care. That's because this lovable franchise has at last returned to give us the joy of sacrificing these little creatures by the hundreds in order to survive.
For the uninitiated, pikmin are creatures with special abilities. Those that are red in color are heavy lifters, those that are blue tackle water well, the yellow handle electricity and so on. Charlie and his shipmates only have a short time to live if they don't collect adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables. And wouldn't you know it? These pikmin love nothing more than scarfing the stuff down.
Armed with a trusty whistle, you move Charlie and company across several sprawling landscapes, encountering beasts and food. You can only usher up to 100 pikmin at a time, so a vast amount of your focus is on strategizing how many of which kind of pikmin to collect and have follow you around.
You will encounter more throughout each level so you can replenish your force, but be aware, for example, that running out of blue pikmin not long before you reach an uncrossable creek is, shall we say, a problem.
Maintaining an ice-cold relationship with your pikmin remains crucial as well, because, as stated previously, you run through these cute little characters at an alarming rate. Some beasts that are encountered require one to experiment with the right combination of pikmin to defeat them, and, depending on how many enemies ambush you, it could be a loss of great proportions. And while I call these bugs and robots "enemies," they hardly seem that. Rather, they are just minding their own business trying to survive, just as you are, and when you cross their path, you have no choice but to do battle.
Equally dispiriting will be the reluctance of pikmin to properly follow you around the map, which means that a few stragglers will perish and you'll occasionally curse the camera for making the viewing angle difficult to make forward progress.
The game gives you two ways to control Charlie and his buddies. The GamePad provides a great map to help keep you moving in the right direction while the Wii Remote has more accuracy in making on-the-fly direction changes and instructions for pikmin. Neither one is 100 percent, however, and you wish there were a better balance or a way to use both.
"Pikmin 3" offers beautifully rendered environments, engaging audio and expands upon what made the first two editions so popular. It is one of the best Wii U releases of the last few months.
3 stars = Good
With the recent releases of "Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon" and "Hotline Miami," those of us who grew up in the 1980s are reveling in two blood-soaked trips back in time.
"Blood Dragon" revels more in lasers, aliens and off-color jokes. "Hotline Miami" (PlayStation 3, Vita, PC; Abstraction Games; M for Mature) struts around in the garish violence that made '80s action movies with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger so bloody delightful.
In "Hotline Miami" you won't find deep, meditative thought on violence in media and its effect on society. Instead, the release will likely spark more hysteria about senseless violence in gaming affecting our youth. But that misses the point. Rather than glorifying violence, this game celebrates the excess of that decade -- loud clothing, heavy synthesizer music, and movies bingeing on drug references and ridiculous shootouts. If you knew the '80s, you'll get the joke and laugh along.
Each level opens with a phone message telling you what building to storm, and off you go with rifles, pistols and shotguns at the ready. The visuals and audio strike you first, a pixelated top-down view of rooms and buildings, along with some fantastic music that feels pulled from any number of bad network TV shows or movies from the era. This viewpoint never changes as you guide the main character (forever nameless) into these dens of inequity where bad men do bad things and must be killed with ruthless abandon.
You are aided in this Mardi Gras of murder by creepy animal masks that give you various enhanced abilities (one gives you better sight; another strong melee skills). You'll need these and copious checkpoints because you're going to die. A lot. One shot is all it takes for you to die, and you might replay levels more than dozen times before conquering them. The enemy artificial intelligence mostly plays dumb (again, see any 1980s action movie), and the boss battles can frustrate you, but really it just takes trial and error to move on.
In many ways, "Hotline Miami" plays out like the last 20 minutes of "Scarface," only drawn out over about three hours of gaming full of nonstop shooting and bloodshed. This kind of game may not suit everyone, but if you can appreciate the pixelated nostalgia and absurd gore, than slip on a mask and dive right in.