“Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets and yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes. And slowly… and surely… they drew their plans against us.”
To people of different ages, HG Well’s classic War of the Worlds will mean different things. To this reviewer it’s forever linked to Jeff Wayne’s 1978 musical version narrated by the rich, throaty tones of Richard Burton. And there was also David Essex (but let’s not spoil this bit of reminiscing by bringing him into it).
To others it’s the distinctly Victorian tale found in Wells’ original novel or even the 1950′s Hollywood driven Cold War propaganda vehicle. And to a more modern generation, who you can’t help but feel sorry for, it will forever mean diminutive Tom Cruise prancing around while the insufferable, talentless Dakota Fanning gurns at the screen like she’s just messed herself again. All before little Tommy boy decides to off Tim Robbins in the basement of his house for no real reason.
Here Paramount and Other Ocean bring their own version of the classic tale to XBLA and PSN. Roughly following the storyline of the book, it follows the plight of Arthur Clarke in 1950’s London as the Martians begin their invasion of Earth, literally crushing everything in their path. From the moment the game starts the strong visual style really sets the tone of death and destruction. Somewhere between a slightly more colourful version of Limbo and the Rotoscoped visuals of classic titles such as Another World and Flashback, it elicits a certain nostalgia to anyone who is old enough to remember those games.
The visual punch is certainly there from the start, with the player aboard a train hurtling from Bristol to London as the first Martian cylinders tear across the sky. Everything from the rubble lined streets to the Red Weed that claws at the player is given a distinct style that makes it eminently watchable. There’s even a lovely meshing of styles from everything from Wells’ literary work, through to the 50’s film featuring the Martian’s tricolour vision. Plus the narration by Jean Luc Pic… sorry, Patrick Stewart. While it does sound like he’s phoning in his lines, if you’ve ever played Castlevania: Lords of Shadow you’ll wonder if that’s just the way he sounds when reading his lines from a script and not being forced to `act` things out visually.
The game follows the platforming nature of the aforementioned titles and unfortunately the sense of nostalgia also extends to the controls being more than a little bit clunky, lacking the element of fluidity expected from a modern title. While this `clunk factor` need not necessarily be a problem, the game also features that hangover staple of `sudden death`. In fact, lots of it, and the controls do little to give the player they feeling that no matter what, they were in control.
While more recent titles like Limbo didn’t shy away from killing you in a grisly manner at every opportunity, here the game seems to do it just because it can, almost out of spite. Any sense of danger or gravitas it tries to convey is inherently broken because all situations, more often than not, will result in your death. While that’s not always a problem if it’s part of the learning curve, here it isn’t always immediately obvious what you did wrong, or what you need to change in order to correct that next time. Sometimes it’s even due to a bug or issue with the collision detection.
A good and very early example is during the frantic flight through the streets of old London town with a Martian War Machine hot on your heels. Other people throng around you, being plucked off the street by the Martian’s tentacles, or turned to ashen outlines by heat ray blasts while you try to traverse the wreckage and pillars to avoid sharing their fate. It’s all great and nicely realised until the Martian decides to unleash its heat ray on you. While the obvious clue on what to do next is to hide yourself away better than the child of an infamous Austrian engineer, there’s no clear indication of where you should be placing yourself in order to survive.
The heat ray waves come in threes. One may pass over you, the second may kill you despite you not having moved. Another time dodging under the middle of a platform seems like it would surely make it impossible to hit you, yet it still does. Other times you’ll die, but the NPC who was hunkering down right next to you will survive unscathed. It’s so hit and miss that you’ll be left utterly confused over and over and over, turning what could (and should) be a fantastic set piece into an utter mess of trial and error.
It’s also an issue of pacing because the designers seemed to be in such a hurry to push you into these sequences and `force` that sense of danger down on you , that they didn’t stop to think how to implement them in a way that was actually most important; making it fun.
Other games have managed it with aplomb and while you may want to argue that this is just another way of the game keeping up with its retro-styling, we’d argue back that things have moved on since then for the better. It’s more important for a game to be fun and offer a great experience rather than making the player feel like they’re being rapped across the knuckles with a hammer . Challenge is one thing, unfair treatment is something entirely different and sadly this game falls into the latter category.
These issues aren’t helped by some weird technical issues which will do little to endear the player to other set pieces. It’s hard to take the flight across London’s rooftops, as a War Machine tears buildings apart around you, seriously when a jump causes the player character to float across the entire length of the level like a cross between the Creeping Jesus and Jim Carrey prancing around like he’s been spiked with acid.
These problems means that you can’t shake the feeling that War of the Worlds is a massive missed opportunity to have produced a must play title. Visually it’s got things down to a tee and if you could overlook the ridiculous trial and error issues and then the bugs, there’s certainly something that will kill a few hours lurking below the surface. Otherwise it may actually be less frustrating (and more entertaining) to just go out into the garden, getting a friend to shine a spotlight in your face whilst blasting you with a hairdryer and shouting `Oooo-lah` through a microphone.