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Gory games offer surprises

A scene from 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.' A scene from "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2."
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / November 26, 2009

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There’s something about the holiday season that just makes me want to blow something up. Zombies, perhaps, or outlaws, or perhaps a few terrorists. It all depends on the video game. A bunch of new ones have recently turned up in stores, in time for tomorrow’s Black Friday shopping binge.

I’ve played more than my share in the past couple of weeks, leaving me with ringing eardrums and a mild case of eyestrain. Still, I loved every minute of it.

Well, almost every minute. Inside the year’s most anticipated game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, lurks a nasty surprise, which I’m about to reveal. If you hate spoilers, look away.

The original Modern Warfare sold 14 million copies, on the strength of its brilliantly sustained intensity. This sequel, available for the Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3 consoles, and Windows desktop computers, is every bit as kinetic. As a British or American commando, you’ll battle Russian nationalists and Brazilian outlaws in a series of ferocious showdowns. Good, clean fun, until civilians become the targets.

In one of the game’s scenes, you play a CIA undercover agent who has infiltrated a terror ist cell. You and your new pals stride into a Moscow airport and start machine-gunning defenseless travelers. For the next several minutes, you watch as helpless people are murdered. If you wish, you can shoot a few yourself. And no, you can’t turn your gun on the bad guys, or you’ll lose instantly. They are supposed to think you’re with them.

It’s the ugliest thing I have ever seen in a video game. The game designers, to their credit, allow players to skip the mission, a right I exercised. But I couldn’t skip the rest of the game; it’s just too good. Despite its appalling lapse in judgment, Modern Warfare 2 is sensational, and not to be missed.

Another of the season’s best games is undone by an ugly flaw - this time, purely technical. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was created exclusively for the Sony PS3 console. In it, you play adventurer Nathan Drake, on a quest to find the lost city of Shangri-La. It’s an Indiana Jones-type adventure, but one that’s a lot more entertaining than last year’s dreadful Indy film.

In fact, no video game has ever done a better job of capturing the style and rhythm of the movies. The action sequences in Uncharted 2 look as if they were shot by a team of cinematographers, then edited into a coherent and thrilling narrative. The game’s storyline is trite, but a first-rate cast of voice-over actors carry it off with flair.

Until everything stops. A software bug caused my copy of Uncharted 2 to freeze up at the start of a showdown with bad guys. No matter what I tried, it wouldn’t unfreeze. A quick Google search found complaints from other players who have had the same problem. A Sony spokeswoman confirmed the reports, but said few users have complained.

I can’t bring myself to recommend Uncharted 2 until they’ve worked the bugs out. Too bad; I’d have otherwise picked it as the best console game I’ve played this year.

A couple of other recent titles have given me hours of bug-free enjoyment. In Borderlands, you play a gun-toting mercenary looking for work on a distant planet that was apparently colonized by extras from the “Mad Max’’ movies. They are shabbily dressed and heavily armed. You’ll know what to do; you have probably played dozens of games like this one, where you engage enemies in search of treasure and better weapons. But Borderlands, created for the Xbox 360, the PS3, and Windows computers, is an unusually good example of the genre, with a gorgeous visual style and a well-managed progression of ever-more-daunting challenges.

I didn’t expect to like Left 4 Dead 2, especially after seeing the game’s gory opening video. But blasting and braining zombies is more fun than I’d expected. In the game for Xbox 360 and Windows PCs, you’re one of four survivors of a zombie onslaught that has pretty much wiped out the population of Savannah, Ga. You and your pals must slug your way through thousands of infected monsters in a bid to reach New Orleans. It’s a classic shooter with a broad array of weapons and a remarkably diverse assortment of acid-spewing, flesh-rending enemies.

But zombie-killing isn’t all blood and guts. Consider my favorite family-friendly game of the year, Plants vs. Zombies, which runs on Windows or Macintosh desktop computers and is rated as suitable for kids 10 and older. The game features a typical suburbanite protecting his home from an onslaught of the undead. His only defense is a garden full of plants that fire peas and other organic projectiles at the approaching horde. Some zombies wear football uniforms as body armor; others have special powers, like the ability to pole vault over obstacles. To survive, you must raise the right kinds of plants to fend off each new wave of animated corpses.

Plants? Zombies? The concept makes no sense at all, until you play it. Within minutes I was giggling with delight at the game’s shrewd tactical design and loopy sense of humor. While it wasn’t designed specifically for the Christmas season, Plants vs. Zombies’ irresistible charm makes it excellent holiday fare. Besides, it still lets you blow stuff up.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.