It’s a three-way battle of console publisher exclusives, with Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all throwing down with games you can only find on their respective systems. Sony is going the shooter route with Helldivers, Nintendo is appealing to puzzle-lovers with Mario and Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars, and Microsoft is taking the long-since-abandoned path of an amusement park simulator in ScreamRide. In an era in which almost every major release is available on one or more platforms, these stark dividing lines are a throwback to the days of bitter console wars. While none of the new games are reasons in and of themselves to buy a particular system, each is a solid addition to a gaming library.
(PS4, PS3, Vita, $20, Teen)
The always-online, persistent-world shooter connects you to a unified, large-scale conflict in which forces shoot it out over resources and strategic outposts. You armor up and choose your loadout, then take on the enemy in cover-based, stop-and-pop combat. The world has fallen into dystopian anarchy, and factions scrap to gain a foothold on the power ladder. The writing is thick with ample, Gears of War-style gallows humor that lightens up the life-or-death mood. There is loads to unlock and upgrade as you slaughter enemies and scavenge for spare weapons and ammo.
Controls are slick and easy to grasp, making the game as playable on the Vita as it is on the home consoles. You can swap saves among the PS4, PS3 and Vita, and also play with others on all three platforms. Much of the combat is twin-stick based, allowing for moments of running and gunning in between the times you dig in and clear out menacing nests of troops. Online play is the standard routine, but yo can also link up with three other players in your living room for free-and-easy couch co-op. In a gaming landscape light on innovative shooters, Helldivers stakes out its position as one of the strongpoints in Sony’s arsenal.
Mario and Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars
(Wii U, 3DS, $20, Everyone)
One of Nintendo’s many Mario offshoot franchises gets yet another entry, disappointingly not having evolved much from its Game Boy Advance days. While it’s comforting to fall back into an old routine without unnecessary changes, it’s disappointing that the game feels like an expansion pack to previous efforts, rather than something new and fresh. Once again, you lord over an army of Lemmings-like mini Mario toys, tapping objects on the screen to create platforms, ladders and drop-offs that guide the toys to grab coins and keys and unlock doors.
The goal is to get your toys to safety, after gathering everything, as quickly as possible. In the manner of a mobile game, you’re given a star score on your success and efficiency, spurring you to double back until you ace each level. There’s a level creator that lets you share and download work from the community, keeping things fresh once you get bored of what’s included. It’s tough to imagine making your way through the lengthy game and still desiring more, but it’s nice to have the option there for those who are interested in. Tipping Stars does scratch a certain itch for quick-hit puzzle gaming, faring equally successful in that purpose on 3DS as it does on the Wii U. In a rarity for Nintendo games, cross-buy functionality gives you access to the game on both systems.
(Xbox One, Xbox 360, $40, Everyone 10+)
Sim games have faded out of fashion, and the thought of a game that brings back memories of RollerCoast Tycoon makes most gamers roll their eyes. That’s why it’s so surprising that ScreamRide is the most exciting Microsoft exclusive so far in this young year. Not content to fall back on the ways of its forebears, ScreamRide has more in common with Joe Danger or Trials Fusion, with the emphasis less on creating and managing tracks than matching wits and reaction times with blazing-fast obstacle courses. The most entertaining mode lets you try to survive roller coaster rides by speeding up, slowing down and leaning your car left and right, with the goal to stay on track and survive through the finish.
The creative mode satisfies the thirst of roller coaster designers, but there’s far more fun in checking out the work others have to offer rather than toiling in the track editor. The sense of speed in the visuals is impressive, and the load times are barely noticeable, allowing for quick restarts that minimize the frustration of repeated failure. Fun to play alone or with others — including less-experienced gamers, who can pick up the controls easily — ScreamRide is a surprise success that gives Xbox One owners — as well as holdouts who are sticking with the Xbox 360 — one more reason to brag to their Sony-devoted rivals.