Portable Project 11

Bumblebee

Welcome to the 11th installment of the long-absent Portable Project, last seen July, 2004. The ‘Project is a feature devoted to handheld gaming that gives critics a chance to dish on smaller titles that might not otherwise get their fifteen minutes of fame, and this relaunch of the feature is dedicated to critic emeritus Erin Bell, who originally created the concept before going on to pursue a career outside of GameCritics.com.

Erin, we wish you well.

The Portable Project 11 – Transformers: Autobots Review

As a lifelong Transformers fan, I'm pleased to say is that 2007 is most definitely one of the best years the mechanical warriors from planet Cybertron have had in a while. The new toys are interesting and high-quality, Michael Bay's feature film surpassed expectations, and there are now three different games to choose from for people who want something electronically interactive.

The subject of this review, Transformers: Autobots, is an intriguing title in that it avoids being the typical one-off licensed game that it very easily could have been. Unlike its console counterpart, Autobots (and its companion piece Decepticons) decided to split things up evenly and create two distinct titles, each focusing on its own faction. Going further, Vicarious Visions set the bar ambitiously high for themselves by attempting to create an open-world formula rather than something more scaled-down for the DS. Although they get my respect for the effort, I think perhaps they bit off more than they could chew.

Breaking away from the storyline of the film, Autobots removes all of the human characters and instead stars a brand-new robot. This robot is named by the player and introduced as a new member of the team. The game then touches on the high points of the movie while offering a number of simple sidequests that can be done for experience.

The thing that immediately grabbed my attention about Autobots is that this new robot is customizable—players can scan passing vehicles and choose to transform into a number of them. The majority are cars and trucks, but helicopters become available and a jet can be unlocked. (Personally, the school bus was my favorite.) Picking and choosing a new vehicle mode at will was absurdly entertaining, and I was occupied for quite a while scanning as many vehicles as I could in the search for something faster and shinier. My inner geek was happy.

Transformers: Autobots ScreenshotTransformers: Decepticons Screenshot

Vicarious Visions won me over with that little innovation, but Autobots has some serious issues just about everywhere else. In a nutshell, it's pretty clear that the DS doesn't have enough horses under the hood to do this game justice.

Although I'm not one to often comment on graphics, the robots look like blocky, smeared messes and the environments are bare and sparse. The combat (both ranged and melee) is broken, and the targeting system is a nightmare. I seriously felt as though the DS was going to wheeze its last breath and crumble with the strain of trying to run the Grand Theft Robot experience this game aims to be.

Being so rough technically, Autobots can be a frustrating experience. There's no way to block or defend enemy fire, and sometimes defeating bosses seems like it takes luck more than anything else. For example, the final battle with Megatron is a tough one that's made tougher by the fact that the game will randomly end the fight if the player gets too far away. This in itself wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that it's wildly inconsistent—sometimes the match is over after being knocked five feet back from explosion, while at other times Megatron could be several blocks away and out of sight and the fight would continue.

The final battle's arbitrary nature is just one example, but the bottom line is that Transformers: Autobots has a few good ideas held back by terrible production values and an execution that's so sketchily erratic that only a dedicated Transfan would be willing to put up with it for more than a few levels. Hopefully the 360 version will do these robots justice. Rating: 5 out of 10.

The Portable Project 11 – Honeycomb Beat Review

An attractive-looking minimalist presentation and a craving for some good puzzle action drew me to Hudson's Honeycomb Beat, and its budget price sealed the deal. Although it started strong and seemed to hold a lot of promise, I'm not quite sure I got my $20 worth—this unorthodox puzzler fizzled out fast.

The central gameplay mechanic to Honeycomb Beat hinges on flipping the hexagonal ‘comb shapes that make up every playfield. With a touch of the DS's stylus, any tile touched flips from black to white, or white to black—and causes every tile around its border to flip as well. It's a simple idea, yet one that offers a good balance of complexity and elegance.

The first mode of play (out of two) consists of 200 puzzles put together by the developers. These puzzles all have preset solutions, the ultimate goal to turn every tile in any given puzzle to its white side. Things start out pleasantly enough with small configurations of hexagons, just a few taps solving most of them. As they get larger they get harder, but there's an intrinsic symmetry to their layout: a sort of geometrical beauty that acts as the key to unlocking more imposing shapes. The problems for me started cropping up when the developers introduced tiles with special properties. (Some flipped themselves while leaving their neighbors unflipped, others flip only diagonal neighbors, and so forth.)

Honeycomb Beat ScreenshotHoneycomb Beat Screenshot

These special tiles ruined the "fairness" and quality of the puzzles for me, and made the gameplay unpleasantly difficult. I thought things were entertaining enough with the basic formula in the early stages, but in the mental challenge of unraveling the exact order in which to touch each tile on top of trying to figure out when to use the "gimmick" tiles became a tediously defeating brick wall near the halfway point—just one small error in the sequence and it's time to start over.

The second mode was less entertaining than the first. In this "evolution" mode, a wall of honeycombs rises from the bottom to the top. It's the player's job to flip the tiles around so that horizontal rows are all the same color. Once this is done, the row disappears and clears more space for the coming tiles. It sounds simple, but I found it to be phenomenally hard. The first few lines can usually be pulled off right away, but the tiles rose quicker than I could ever keep up with. I didn't get very far due to its unforgiving nature, and didn't think this mode was particularly well-made.

Although the price was right and I admired its aesthetic, it was easier and more enjoyable to simply put Honeycomb Beat aside rather than grit my teeth and hang on. I never felt very rewarded or challenged; I was either struggling once past the beginning stages or just getting crushed by the unfriendly nature of play—not exactly the kind of thing I like to bring with me when I need to get in a quick 15 minutes of game on the go. Rating: 4.5 out of 10

The Portable Project 11 – Star Wars: Lethal Alliance Review

Good Star Wars games are few and far between. Some may disagree, but as someone who's a fan (but not obsessively so), I don't find myself blinded by loyalty or love of the films. Still, I think it's a great universe to work with, and I like it if the games building on it succeed. As such, Star Wars: Lethal Alliance is an effort that gets a lot right in terms of the license, but still falls short of what makes a game good overall.

For me, the strongest aspect of Lethal Alliance was the characters. Feeling like natural fits alongside familiar faces like Princess Leia and the previously-established-in-games Kyle Katarn, twi'lek heroine Rianna (one of those aliens with long tentacles on their heads as seen dancing for Jabba in Return of the Jedi) and her trusty droid Zeeo are a great pair.

What made these two memorable was that they were a kind of duo that fans haven't really seen a lot of in Lucas' universe; each one efficient and independent, yet both functioning as a symbiotic whole in tandem. Unlike the other droids seen in the films, Zeeo has powerful combat attacks and is often used as an acrobatic aid to help Rianna scale walls or fly through the air in a handful of racing levels. Rianna's no slouch herself, able to execute stealth kills and brawl with the best of them.

Star Wars: Lethal Alliance Screenshot

While I think in the developers did a great job of creating this pair, they failed to come up with an adventure of similar quality, turning what could have been an outstanding title into another mediocre effort.

Basically, there are about five or six different types of levels that repeat for the entire length of the game, and although each one is decent enough (except for the stealth missions never seeming to function as planned), they're not enjoyable or substantial enough to support a whole adventure. As such, Lethal Alliance starts to feel stale and repetitive long before the credits roll. Level 10 feels like a palette-swap of level five, the racing on Mustafar seems like the same racing on the forest planet, and there are entirely too many "take out all enemies with the gun turret" sections for my taste.

It satisfies in small doses, but there's no denying that neither the engaging characters nor the Star Wars license are enough to conceal the fact that Star Wars: Lethal Alliance is thin and underdeveloped. I can't really recommend it to anyone except for fans of the license, but I will say that I hope these characters are used again in the future—I would definitely like to see more of them. Rating: 5 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Sony PSP version of the game.