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Not the hotshot anymore

Remember the old days? When it came to first-person shooters, there was the Halo series and then there were the rest.

Well, my friend, those days are gone.

For proof, look no further than Halo 3 ODST, which hit store shelves Tuesday.

Is this “prequel” to 2007’s Halo 3 a good game? You bet your sweet cupcakes. The compelling story, the smooth action and the intense visuals are all top-shelf.

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Problem is, the same can be said for nearly every first-person shooter that is released these days. The Halo series set the bar, and, disappointingly, ODST fails to raise it.

The ODSTs, which stands for the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, are literally dropped into New Mombasa to protect the Earth from the alien Covenant that invades in the year 2552. The campaign unfolds as the splintered special-forces-like unit tries to discover what’s truly behind the invasion -- and to waste some invaders along the way.

Though the story is interesting and unfolds along a fractured timeline -- a nice touch -- the cut screens are a step back from other games in this series (and pale in comparison to the last outing, Halo Wars).

“Firefight” mode allows gamers to form a squad and engage in furious gun battles against wave after wave of bad guys, and the included second disc offers “the complete Halo 3 multiplayer experience,” which you presumably already have been playing for the last two years using your Halo 3 disc.

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When and if there is a Halo 4, let’s hope it’s closer to what made the series groundbreaking, unlike this offering.

Grade: B+ (A good game, but so are most these days.)

Details: Xbox 360 platform; $59.99; rated Mature (blood, language, violence)

Lara Croft rehash ends up all Wet

The formula to make the new action game Wet is simple: Take one part of the “Grindhouse"-style movies of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Add one part of the violent ballet found in John Woo-directed action films. Blend in your typical hot video game chick and season with a liberal supply of bullets, blades and blood. Oh, and the most important part? Serve over a framework of everyone’s favorite video game starlet, Lara Croft.

For, sadly, that’s all that Rubi Malone, the lead of Wet, is: a Tomb Raider with tattoos.

With Rubi’s athletic abilities and the puzzles that require precision jumps, it’s nearly impossible not to compare her to the classic character. Lara Croft is British and regal; Rubi is 100% Texas tough girl, complete with a driving rockabilly soundtrack.

While the action is at times crazy exciting and the voice acting top-notch (with Eliza Dushku, Malcolm McDowell and Alan Cumming voicing the main characters), the game’s attempt to pay full homage to 1970s-era drive-in movies produces mixed results. The old-school clips that run during loading times and the ripped-film look when Rubi dies do wonders to enhance the experience. But the makers also included picture scratches and screen jumps during the gameplay in an effort to stylize the action. (Luckily, this annoying option is easily removed in the game’s setup.)

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Grade: B+ (The elements are there, the results aren’t.)

Details: PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 platforms; $59.99; rated Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, sexual content, strong language)

Beautiful look, retro gameplay

Muramasa: The Demon Blade is incredibly retro, both in its structure and form. Like Ghosts and Goblins, the classic 2-D side-scrolling button masher, Muramasa’s level design is simplistically nostalgic. What puts it in a class all its own are the extremely colorful stylizations. There are cut screens here that look like a watercolor painting came to life. Some levels are so bright and stylized that they remind you of a Jackson Pollock painting. It’s playable beauty.

Unfortunately, even all that eye candy gets repetitive after a while when running past the same background and fighting the same samurai. Another distraction is the difficult-to-follow story. The title is imported from Japan and presumably makes more sense there.

Still, with the simple control scheme -- easily accessible with only a few button combinations to master -- nearly anyone can jump right in and begin playing. Another bonus: This is the rare Wii game that doesn’t require swinging the Wiimote around to simulate a knife strike, meaning less fatigue after a long play session.

Grade: B+ (Beauty abounds.)

Details: Nintendo Wii platform; $49.99; rated Teen (alcohol reference, fantasy violence, suggestive themes)

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The Dark Knight in an insane fight

What Batman: Arkham Asylum lacks in plot (the Joker has trapped the Caped Crusader in Gotham’s maximum-security penitentiary, and it’s up to Bats to restore order), it more than makes up for with great action, spectacular graphics and a beautifully detailed environment packed with enough nooks and crannies to fill four games.

Here the asylum is a character. Batman has to use all his wits to explore the air ducts, hanging gargoyles and hidden passages to quell the uprising. The rooms are well-designed and full of little details pulled from the Batman universe, and unlockable puzzles and hidden objects make the exploration even more immersive.

Batman himself gets a makeover in this stand-alone title. He looks more menacing and ripped than realistic, as does the Joker: Though the evil clown’s face may resemble the smeared makeup of Heath Ledger’s anarchistic villain, his long arms and legs give him more of a comic feel.

Batman also is required to do some “CSI"-style investigation, a great touch to an already great game that is not to be missed.

Grade: A (almost too much to see and explore)

Details: PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 platforms; $59.99; rated Teen (alcohol and tobacco reference, blood, mild language, suggestive themes, violence)

Professor makes for puzzling fun

Sure, in theory it can get a little annoying when, in the middle of a murder investigation, Professor Layton suddenly asks his young apprentice to try to move a stack of three pancakes so that the pyramid moves from the left plate to the right without having a smaller one under a larger one. Or when someone else who might have valuable information demands that the professor solve a Tetris-like puzzle by sliding shapes around.

But that’s what makes Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box so much fun to play. It’s the silly little puzzles that pop up, forcing the player to use brainpower to get past them.

Like the first Layton adventure (this one is a direct descendant), it’s up to the professor and Luke to discover what caused a colleague’s death and what a mysterious box might have contributed to it. And like the other Layton mystery, this one features beautifully rendered full-motion video clips, a rarity in Nintendo DS games.

The puzzles, plot and pointlessness are a perfect mix.

Grade: A (perfect for puzzle lovers everywhere)

Details: Nintendo DS platform; $34.99; rated Everyone 10+ (alcohol reference, mild violence)

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calendar@latimes.com


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