Wii U sales have been soft throughout its first year and a half, but a Nintendo system doesn’t really launch until a Mario Kart game comes out. Wii U owners finally get the pleasure of nailing each other with blue shells, thanks to Mario Kart 8. The other big boy release, available on all other home consoles except for Nintendo stuff, is Wolfenstein: The New Order. The latest attempt to resurrect of one of the earliest wildly popular first-persons shooters, the over-the-top Nazi hunting gorefest is the rare Wolfenstein follow-up to have done its great-granddaddy proud.
There’s also a rare PS4 RPG in Drakengard 3, and a couple of treats for handheld gamers in the form of Borderlands 2 and Conception II ports.
(Vita, $40, Mature)
One of the best first-person shooters of 2012 gets transformed into portable form, dragging along nearly all its post-release DLC with it. The open-world, RPG-lite lootfest remains as addictive and intense as ever, but loses some of its home console gloss in the shrinkage. Graphics, sound and framerates suffer, the latter especially when things get busy amid wild firefights.
Still, there’s much to enjoy, especially if you’ve never played Borderlands 2 before. The game pops with absurd violence and humor, and entices you to plug through its multitude of missions with everpresent upgrades and enhancements. PS3 owners who want to take their favorite character builds on the go can transfer saves back and forth between the console and handheld.
Bound by Flame
(PS4, PS3, $50, Mature)
Those pining for an intense fantasy RPG on Sony’s youngest system will be pleased to see Bound by Flame emerging from the wasteland of rare new-gen releases. You play a lone wolf, possessed by a fire demon that grants him superpowers, who becomes embroiled in a conflict between light and dark. Moral choice-based gameplay that’s a bit like that of the Infamous games helps liven up the fairly generic story, letting you choose whether to tap your demon powers to lay waste to all or preserve your humanity by sticking to mortal maneuvers.
The combat is deep and engaging, allowing you to strategically set up traps and other fortifications to thin out and hinder attacking forces. The voice acting is solid, but the writing is agonizingly poor, as though the writers intentionally tried and failed to create “arrow in the knee”-like Skyrim memes. Roll your eyes and think happy thoughts during the interminable cut scenes, enjoy the strategy and battles and you’ll be good to go.
Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars
(3DS, $40, Mature)
I found the JRPG/warrior deity reproduction sim to be solid on the Vita, but after checking it out on the 3DS, I far prefer it on Nintendo’s handheld. The dual screens take away the naggingly irritating menu system in the Vita release, letting you tap through the digital red tape to navigate your way through the convoluted tale. As with the Vita version, you play a high school student whose job it is to fight off baddies in dungeon crawls, emerging to seduce ladies and spawn superpowered children who help you out in battle.
Touche of the social aspects of Persona and branching conversations of Mass Effect add to the game’s depth. The writing is equally amazing and awful, unafraid to wear its shallow pervertedness on its sleeve. While the Vita version features slightly better graphics and a larger screen, the ease-of-use factor makes the 3DS version more enjoyable.
(PS3, $50, Mature)
Despite the “3” in the title, this swords-and-sorcery RPG is a prequel to the original Drakengard on PS2. What’s back are the fantastical beasts, heaving cleavage and stylish combat for which the series is known. The intrigue swirls around a division within six magic-wielding sisters, when the eldest begins using her pet dragon to hunt down and slay all her siblings.
Combat is vicious, sword-flailing slashing — both on the ground and in the air — with Devil May Cry-like combos that help you rack up experience based on style and sadism. There’s a healthy amount of sidequests to limit the amount of grinding needed to hit powerful-enough levels to forge ahead in the story, which never bores and always has an exciting twist at the ready. The visuals press the PS3 to its limits, rivaling nearly anything of the genre I’ve yet seen on the PS4.
Mario Kart 8
(Wii U, $60, Everyone)
I am definitely biased here, because every Mario Kart entry has wound up being my favorite game on that system. Over the years, the addition of online multiplayer has only solidified my addiction, and Nintendo’s ability to refine and build upon the foundations its laid before continue to astound me. That said, it’s no surprise to me that Mario Kart 8 is not only my favorite Wii U game, but pretty much my favorite video game on any system, ever.
Whiners will say that it’s just another remake of a 20-plus-year-old racer, but ignore the people who just don’t get the game’s ceaseless charms and thriving, oft-agonizing and thoroughly rewarding competition. As with the past several entries in the series, the courses available are an equal mix of new and classic tracks. Both allow for sideways, wall-riding antigravity sequences that add new dimensions to strategy and maneuvering, and the item distribution is more balanced than ever. Dreaded blue shells are now counterable, the rubber band artificial intelligence is played down, and the 12-player online multiplayer throw-downs make for nonstop thrills.
There are some flies in the ointment. Battle mode, which hasn’t been solid since Double Dash on Game Cube, continues to be an afterthought, and the lack of an easy way to message and invite online friends into matches is frustrating. But that doesn’t stop this from being the best reason to pick up and hold on to a Wii U.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
(Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, $60, Mature)
One of the most fondly-remembered first-person shooters, the Nazi-slaughtering Wolfenstein series has fallen on times as hard as Wreck-it Ralph as it seeks relevance in the modern era. A 2009 remake flopped and nearly deep-sixed the franchise, but this latest attempt —a free-wheeling, relaxed adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously—is the best attempt yet at recapturing the ancient magic of the original.
After a World War II-set prologue, you re-emerge in an alternate 1960 in which the victorious Germans monstrously reign over Europe, subjecting all to their twisted, fascist visions fueled by demented science. As heavy arms-wielding hero, B.J., you aim to singlehandedly take down the regime, throwing down with robotic giants and dogs, as well as genetically and mechanically enhanced soldiers. Subtle humor and gloriously bloody violence pepper the adventure, but convoluted controls make it difficult to pull off simple and necessary moves when you are just getting the hang of things. Overall, the shooter is a decisive, uproarious win, perfectly timed for the pre-summer doldrums.