War of the Worlds (XBLA)
by, 08 Mar 2012 at 03:46 AM (3695 Views)
Developer Other Ocean plumbs deep, so deep, into Paramount's licensing files that they put Herbert George Welles's ass to sleep with a side-scrolling platforming War of the Worlds video game. Using the original novel as a jumping-off point, it tells a parallel story set during the novel's alien invasion featuring excellent visuals based on the 1953 movie adaptation.
You take control of Arthur Clarke (not that one), a man in search of his family amidst the general devastation wreaked by the alien invaders. The gameplay is firmly rooted in the rotoscoped platforming genre pioneered by Mechner's Prince of Persia and recently seen in Limbo. For the uninitiated this means you're going to spend the better part of the game running, jumping, grabbing onto ledges, pulling yourself up and then running and jumping some more using slightly loose controls and a lot of character animation. You'll start out defenseless but will eventually find a weapon and start fighting back. It's pretty much guaranteed that you will be pushing around a crate or two, flipping switches to open doors, and will a platform you just landed on crumble under your feet? All signs point to yes.
The art direction is excellent with some really nice, varied sets. The dozens of innocent bystander sprites running around getting dead all over the place really add to the immersion and general feeling of danger in the city levels. You'll spend some alone time in decrepit houses, buildings, sewers, and eventually make your way through alien strongholds. Some of the environmental puzzles are pretty innovative, like the entire segment with the spotlights and blood-sucking red vines. The soundtrack does a great job in creating an appropriate atmosphere and the game even features narration by Patrick Stewart, which is pulled off as professionally as you would expect from Captain Picard. The story is solid and is mainly told through the narration and in-game exposition, with the odd artistic flashback thrown in for effect. It might all get a little silly when your untrained dude with an axe tells the army corps to stand aside while he handles this as he rolls up his sleeves, but it never really degenerates into groan-inducing territory.
As with any other platformer, this game lives and dies by its feel, and this is where WotW falls short: the controls don't feel as fluid as they should. You'll sometimes come to stilted halts during segments that require speedy traversal through obstacle-laden streets, leading to death. It is also sometimes difficult to differentiate between the background and active platforms. Jumping straight up to grab a ledge doesn't inch you forward slightly as it should after every jump, just in case you misjudged your distance from the edge of the platform above you. Once you find ways of fighting back hit detection becomes a slight issue. These are all generally minor complaints that don't ruin the game, but they do cause significant annoyance.
The real problem with the game lies in some of the environmental puzzles and their solutions. The best way that I can describe it is that they are not particularly “clean.” Trial and error is an integral part of this genre, as are no death run attempts/achievements. While it may be seen as a negative in modern games that revel in their emergent gameplay, predictability is life here. You need to know that the enemies and obstacles will react to your actions in exactly the same way every time. There were some instances where I survived some situations without fully understanding how or why, based on my positioning onscreen. Some enemies have erratic patrol patterns. Obstacles like live wires flail around wildly, leading to some hail mary dodging that may or may not be successful. The game demands precision and memorization but does not reciprocate in kind. While I have achieved perfect runs in the XBLA versions of Prince of Persia classic and Limbo, I will not be attempting it here. They let a little too much Lester the Unlikely creep into their Out of This World.
What it really comes down to is that the genre choice is a double-edged sword. If you're as big a fan of this type of game as I am, this is definitely a buy. You don't get too many of these games anymore and WotW is worth the price of admission. It's put together well and it tells a good story on a solid premise, especially for fans. On the other hand, it's definitely a tough genre to love. I can see the repetitious trial-and-error gameplay, clunky controls, constant deaths and lack of replay value turning off a lot of people. The license is also a very odd choice, but the combination of both almost ensures a diminutive audience for this title. Is there an audience for a classic War of the Worlds fanfic that doesn't involve erotic tentacles? I would say yes, but I am afraid that the audience consists solely of myself.
4/5 stars for me, 3/5 for everyone else
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