published Friday, February 21st, 2014

Taking chances: Next-gen consoles fueling innovative video game releases

Video gamers often complain that publishers rely too much on releasing annual entries in established franchises that are safe-sells rather than taking a risk on new ideas. This spring, however, the oncoming breeze promises to be a bit less stale.

In addition to a few of the usual franchise releases, the biggest titles before summer include several games that turn established franchises on their heads and the next-generation debuts of a few beloved series.

‘DONKEY KONG COUNTRY TROPICAL FREEZE’

Release date: Today.

Summary: In the midst of celebrating Donkey Kong’s birthday, Vikings arrive, bringing icy conditions with them and a wind that blows the heroic ape to a faraway land. DK must travel back across a series of islands and reclaim his home.

Why it’s hot: Donkey Kong is a household name among gamers, and “Tropical Freeze” marks his first appearance in high-definition. The game features the same sidescrolling platform that longtime fans love, but the Wii U’s extra power adds graphical flourishes, such as realistic fur and richer lighting effects, that weren’t possible on earlier consoles.

Age rating: E for everyone.

Price: $50 for Wii U.

‘THIEF’

Release date: Tuesday.

Summary: Master thief Garrett returns to his hometown only to find it plague-ridden and under tyrannical rule with a revolution set to boil over. Grudgingly, he finds himself in a deciding role in this conflict, although his heart remains fixed on pilfering more lucrative prizes from the city’s wealthiest citizens.

Why it’s hot: This is a reboot of a beloved PC franchise that shares its predecessor’s focus on keeping to the shadows while reimagining the story and setting. The missions are designed to allow for multiple approaches, from stealthy infiltrator to lethal assassin, and the Unreal Engine 3-powered graphics are a dramatic improvement over 2005’s “Thief: Deadly Shadows.” Garrett’s tool kit also has been improved to give players more acrobatic options for navigating the larger, more-open levels.

Age rating: M for mature.

Price: $60 for Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One; $50 for PC.

‘PLANTS VS. ZOMBIES: GARDEN WARFARE’

Release date: Tuesday.

Summary: Plants and their undead arch-nemeses continue their eternal struggle for dominance of gardens and graveyards — this time in 3-D.

Why it’s hot: When it released in 2009 to computers — then smartphones, tablets and pretty much every other platform imaginable —“Plants vs. Zombies” provided a tight, quirky take on the tower-defense genre that proved exceptionally popular. “Garden Warfare” reimagines the series as a multiplayer, third-person shooter with players controlling different “classes” of plants and — for the first time ever — zombies, all of whom possess unique abilities and weapons. Different modes include competitive matches and co-op battles against waves of enemies.

Age rating: E for everyone.

Price: $40 for Xbox One; $30 for Xbox 360, PC.

‘CASTLEVANIA: LORDS OF SHADOW 2’

Release date: Tuesday.

Summary: Years after Gabriel Belmont became the infamous vampire lord Dracula, he is awakened from his slumber. In a weakened state and with a clan of vampire hunters and his son, Alucard, sniffing at his heels, Dracula is told that he must reacquire his abilities to once again face down Satan.

Why it’s hot: In 2010, the original “Lords of Shadow” applied a high degree of cinematic polish and a focused narrative to the legendary “Castlevania” franchise. The sequel concludes that storyline and frees players from the original’s linear design in favor of a more open world. Addressing a major complaint leveled at the original, the camera is now adjustable instead of locked to specific angles for dramatic effect.

Age rating: M for mature.

Price: $60 for PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360.

‘SOUTH PARK: THE STICK OF TRUTH’

Release date: March 4.

Summary: A new kid — the player — arrives in South Park, Colo., and embarks on the timeless quest to make friends and become popular while the rest of the town dresses up as wizards, elves and barbarians in a citywide live-action role-playing game session.

Why it’s hot: Although it is, at its core, a traditional fantasy role-playing game, “Stick of Truth” was written and voiced by “South Park” masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone, so players can expect the show’s trademark art style, sense of humor and a bevy of inside jokes aimed at longtime fans of the series.

Age rating: M for mature.

Price: $60 for PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360.

‘YAIBA: NINJA GAIDEN Z’

Release date: March 4.

Summary: Yaiba Kamikaze, a ninja who was killed by being sliced in half, is brought back to life as a zombie-slaying cyborg equipped with a sword and a mechanized arm. (Yes, really.)

Why it’s hot: After decades of bringing brutally difficult action titles starring living characters, “Yaiba” takes the “Ninja Gaiden” series in a new direction with an over-the-top storyline set in a world depicted with stunning, comic book-style graphics. “Yaiba” is directed by action game legend Keiji Inafune, who co-designed “Mega Man” and who has ties to series such as “Resident Evil,” “Street Fighter,” “Onimusha” and “Dead Rising.”

Age rating: M for mature.

Price: $60 for Playstation 3, Xbox 360.

‘DARK SOULS II’

Release date: March 11.

Summary: A cursed soul wanders a dark and dangerous fantasy world in search of a cure for its mysterious condition.

Why it’s hot: When it hit store shelves in 2011, “Dark Souls” won numerous Game of the Year awards for its brutally difficult, finely polished gameplay, foreboding visual style and well-realized world. This sequel — a first for developer From Software — keeps the difficulty at a peak but tweaks the combat to make it more fluid and offers huge expansions to the customization options and equipment available to players.

Age rating: T for teen.

Price: $60 for Playstation 3, Xbox 360; $50 for PC.

‘TITANFALL’

Release date: March 11; March 25 for Xbox 360.

Summary: Generations have passed since humanity expanded to other star systems. On the stellar frontier, a centralized civilian military and a colonial resistance wage war using human infantry and mechanized, piloted battle suits called “Titans.”

Why it’s hot: When it was unveiled at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2013, “Titanfall” was heralded by many as one of the most exciting titles of the conference. Gamers have tremendous expectations for it as the first next-generation game from Respawn Entertainment, a studio created by the ousted co-founders of “Call of Duty” developer Infinity Ward. Gameplay is multiplayer-only and features fast-paced first-person-shooter combat between on-foot players, who are vulnerable but acrobatically mobile, and a handful of powerful, player-controlled Titans.

Age rating: M for mature.

Price: $60 for PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One.

‘METAL GEAR SOLID V: GROUND ZEROES’

Release date: March 18.

Summary: In 1975, the leader of a mercenary group attempts to infiltrate a secret American facility in Cuba, where he hopes to rescue a detained agent and a child soldier.

Why it’s hot: Reportedly just a few hours long, “Ground Zeroes” isn’t a full-length entry in the long-running “Metal Gear” action-stealth series but rather a prelude to the next major entry, “The Phantom Pain,” which has yet to be set for release. Nevertheless, the production values of the next-generation “Fox” graphics engine are a tremendous improvement over the most-recent release, 2008’s “Metal Gear Solid IV,” and showcase the capabilities of the Xbox One and Playstation 4. The game world is much more dynamic and open to exploration, so players can choose their own path to completing objectives.

Age rating: M for mature.

Price: $40 for Playstation 4, Xbox One; $30 for Playstation 3, Xbox 360.

‘INFAMOUS: SECOND SON’

Release date: March 21.

Summary: Delsin Rowe is a Conduit, one of an emerging class of super-humans with mutant abilities. Feared by the rest of humanity, Rowe must decide how to interact with society, whether as a power-mad oppressor or benevolent protector.

Why it’s hot: Set in Seattle, this third entry in the Playstation-exclusive “Infamous” action-adventure series is the first to appear on a next-generation console and features highly detailed movement and facial animations, environments and special effects. The upgrade system also is more open-ended than previous entries, thanks to Rowe’s ability to absorb the powers of other Conduits and create a custom set of skills.

Age rating: T for teen.

Price: $60 for Playstation 4.

‘THE ELDER SCROLLS ONLINE’

Release date: April 4; June 30 for Playstation 4, Xbox One.

Summary: Set centuries before the events of 2011’s hugely popular “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” and 2005’s “Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion,” players return to the world of Tamriel and join one of three factions fighting for leadership of an empire.

Why it’s hot: For the first time ever, “Elder Scrolls” fans will interact with one another in a massively multiplayer game set in the previously single-player-only role-playing franchise. “Elder Scrolls Online” maintains previous entries’ focus on fast-paced combat that rewards quick timing, and its Megaserver technology actively seeks to place players in the same game world as their friends by integrating with social media. Voice acting is provided by a celebrity cast including John Cleese, Kate Beckinsale, Alfred Molina and Bill Nighy.

Age rating: Rating pending.

Price: $60 for PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One.

‘MARIO KART 8’

Release date: May 30.

Summary: Characters from the Mario universe hop in the driver’s seat as Nintendo’s hugely popular kart-racing series makes its next-generation debut.

Why it’s hot: Not one to reinvent the wheel, the eighth “Mario Kart” keeps the tweaks subtle, including new racers, tracks with anti-gravity sections, video sharing through the new Mario Kart TV channel and enhanced graphics that take advantage of the Wii U’s power while maintaining the series’ beloved cartoon-y look. More recent feature additions, such as 12-person races and alternative modes for each vehicle, return from “Mario Kart Wii” (2008) and “Mario Kart 7” (2011).

Age rating: Rating pending.

Price: $60 for Wii U.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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