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In praise of ladders, paper bags and palm trees

Oh, to be a mop bucket for a day! Three video games provide a little escape from all this bad news.
"Geist" starts out as a conventional action game before heading into the bizarre.
"Geist" starts out as a conventional action game before heading into the bizarre.Nintendo

This time of year in the news business was once defined by mid-afternoon rounds at the nearest saloon (at least in non-election years). Not so this season with its myriad of disasters which has forced this columnist to temporarily drop his Xbox for LexisNexis.

But non-stop bad news breeds a desire for escape and for the video game minded, three games released earlier this summer do the trick. One celebrates the joys of being an inanimate object — oh to be to be mop bucket for a day!  So safe, so emotionless. In a second game, you bring such inanimate objects to "life." And in the last game, you use these objects the old fashioned way — whomping enemies over the head.

"Geist’s” opening moments leave no action gaming cliché untouched before taking a U-turn into the bizarre.

Expository setup about the game’s bad guy? Check. A quick commando raid to get the heart beating? Check. Perfunctory training in various weapons and gadgets? Check.

Then the going gets weird. You’re transported to a hallucinatory landscape straight out of a Thomas Kinkaid painting. There are waterfalls, rainbows and little bunnies that hop about.

"You have ascended to something greater than you were," a bodiless female voice purrs. We learn that John Raimi, the game’s hero and the character through which players view the world, has been liberated from his corporeal body. He is now a ghost with the power to inhabit objects, both organic and inorganic.

To prove this, Raimi (that's you) is transported into the body of the nearest bunny.

But you hop amongst Kincadian poppies and posies for only so long before the bucolic landscape shatters into static and in place of a female voice comes a metallic, inhuman voice that whispers “Kill them all!"

Rock n' Roll! Of course “Geist” can’t maintain this level of surrealism and before you can say “RPG,” the action slips back into the familiar “run and gun” modus operandi. There are, however, some nice little curves in the road ahead. 

Raimi, we learn, is serving as a lab rat for game bad guy Alexander Voch, an arms dealer and evil old fart. Voch is using science and the supernatural to build an army of spirits. The experiment went awry, however, turning Raimi free (a free spirit, if you will) to roam Voch's dark hallways and exposed heating vents — video game bad guys just love the deconstruction look.

Raimi can’t just glide through walls and raise hell. He needs to inhabit and control things. A locked door can be a game ending roadblock until Raimi tracks down and inhabits the body of a scientist with the pass key. Likewise, possessing the bodies of dogs and rats allows Raimi access to tighter squeezes.

More fun comes with monkeying with the paramilitaries that guard Voch's complex by taking control of one guy and triggering a firefight.

Inorganic objects such as ladders, fire extinguishers, dog bowls and computers can be possessed and rattled or powered up to spook jumpy guards. The more scared a human or animal, the easier they are to possess. The ubiquitous explosive crate can be possessed and exploded. Likewise, grenades where you literally roll yourself between the legs of the enemy.

This ability to inhabit various objects helps to solve puzzles. Early in the game a fuse required to fix a broken fuse box remains out of reach of the engineer Raimi possesses. How to solve this challenge? To paraphrase that old sports saying, “Be the ball.”  Or in this case, be the fuse and roll yourself towards the engineer.

For every puzzle there are miles of darkened hallways to traverse. Why do bad guys refuse to invest in good lighting? When compared against other first-person-shooters "Geist" is noticeably weaker in animation — although the texture mapping looks great — and in pure run and gun performance. But "Geist" plays its particular supernatural twist well. 

Any game that allows you to be a mop bucket deserves points, doesn't it?

"Graffiti Kingdom"
In "Graffiti Kingdom" one can not only be a mop bucket, but take that bucket out for some serious battling.

You are Prince Pixel tasked with rescuing the Canvas Kingdom from a demon ... and that’s all the background you need to know. This is a kid-friendly fantasy game with the usual assortment of poor dialogue "crafted" to appeal to children as well as cloying, repetitive music.

So put the game on mute. The real hook is a drawing tool that allows players to create their own creatures and test them in battle.

Anyone with even half of a right brain can master the tool. Using the PlayStation 2 thumbstick, players draw two-dimensional shapes. A click of the button turns a circular squiggle into a three-dimensional object that can rotate along the X, Y and Z axis. Change the width of the shape, then add color. Draw and attach arms, legs, tails and various flappy things, applying the same level of customization.

“Graffiti Kingdom” animates the newly created blob, accentuating deformities. One of my creatures was cursed with one leg being shorter than the other and it hopped around. But another creature with long spindly arms smacked down evil minions like a Claymation Wilt Chamberlain.

The player can map out various kicks, punches and jumps to their keypad for each monster, including movement style -- do you want it to shuffle or dance? You can also pick from an assortment of yelps and growls. In later stages of the game special powers, weapons and additional appendages — such as wheels or wings for flying — become available.

The animation style bears a passing resemblance to old fashioned Claymation, lending creatures a more tactile, sculptured and whimsical quality.

Game play combines basic punch-kick-punch fighting with some of the most creative strategizing in console gaming. In other games what passes for strategy is often simply finding secret passages or hopping from one precarious perch to another. "Graffiti Kingdom," on the other hand, requires that players conquer difficult situations by drawing their way out of them. Everything from facing a particularly nasty boss to trying to leap over an insurmountable wall comes with a right brain solution.   

Players may not be able to draw their way out of a paper bag. But drawing a paper bag with a missile launcher? Now that's something else entirely.

"The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction"
The title says it all. Game makers Radical Entertainment have created large free-roaming environments loaded with combustible vehicles and fuel tanks. 

Playing as the green guy, players search for a cure to his anger management problem all the while battling General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross who throws troops, helicopters and the occasional secret weapon at him.

And what does the Hulk throw back in return?  Everything but the kitchen sink.

Much of the assets populating this game's colorful and three-dimensional environments can be manipulated to devastating effect. Palm trees can be uprooted to swat cops like golf balls. No city bus or passing car is unpluckable. And fleeing soldiers can be picked up and hurled into their band of brothers with ease.

Game controls are built around enabling a mind-numbing number of combinations attacks like backslaps and stomps, punts and hammer smashes, even a deadly knee groin move. Ouch!

Even when not actually destroying objects, the Hulk is destroying objects. His hundred-foot high jumps end up cracking the pavement.  Running up the walls of buildings — a neat little trick — rupture cornices and send debris clattering to the street below.

There's just enough explosive details and real-world physics tricks to keep the player interested long after the plot wears thin. Those seeking the answer to the long sought question of whether or not a hovering helicopter can be downed by hurling a fast food sign at it will not be disappointed.