Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)
From the same artisans who hand-crafted the PS2 beauties Odin Sphere and GrimGrimoire – which were also criminally underloved – comes this lavish 2D action title. We could talk about how captivating the myth-filled feudal Japanese setting is or how there are more than 100 swords for the two main characters – an amnesiac ninja and a demonically possessed princess - to collect. But really, it’s all about the graphics. Muramasa feels like you’re playing the most gorgeous fantasy painting in the world come to life. And if (more likely, when) it gets outsold by the latest collection of big-headed mini-baby-games, we’re going to go on a murder rampage. Buy it – you’ll save lives.
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (360, PS3, PC)
Yes, there’s a whole platoon of solid-looking shooters this year – Modern Warfare 2, Halo ODST, Singularity, Wolfenstein – but they’re all set between WWII and the sci-fi futureverse. Real fans should also be loading their six-shooters for this gunslinging Western tale.
For one thing, it’s visually striking – most everything’s brown because it’s the Old West, but scenes like one shootout we had in a burning cornfield are still impressive. Plus, there’s variety. In one half-hour session, we shot up a bar, stormed out of town on a stolen stagecoach, traded hot lead with the sheriff’s posse as they galloped alongside us, and used a cannon to blow up a riverboat. Plus, it’s the only shooter this year that let us fan the hammers of two pistols at once. Physically impossible in the real world? Maybe, but exhilarating in a game.
Split/Second (360/PS3, PC)
We’re about to say something that might rile you: screw Forza and forget Gran Turismo. They’re boring. Our E3 racing game of choice is destructo-combat racer Split/Second. It looks as hot and feels as fast as any other racing game out there, but buries the needle on the excite-o-meter by giving each driver the power to trigger environmental hazards. BIG environmental hazards. In the airport level we raced, the lower-tier items were things like exploding roadside gas tanks. But build up enough power (by drifting, jumping, or having close shaves) and you could first demolish the control tower, revealing a new shortcut, and then bring an entire jetliner crashing down into your opponent’s grill. Best of all, the game tells you when your enemies are in range of a hazard, so you can watch the carnage happen in front of you instead of glancing at it in your rear-view mirror.
Dementium II (DS)
The first Dementium was a surprisingly successful attempt to make a spooky first-person game on the DS. The setting, a psychiatric care facility stuck in an alternate reality and crawling with various ghosts and zombie fleshbeasts, was chilling. It looked better than a DS game has any right to look. The controls worked well – heck, even the real-time in-game flashlight was well handled. Little is known about this sequel outside of a cryptic trailer advertising a mental health hospital (most likely the setting for the game), but it only has to be as good as the original to be one of the year’s best DS titles.