I’m a guy. Therefore, I’m genetically inclined to be keen on futuristic weapons, space travel, funky-looking aliens and pretty much anything else sci-fi related. Now, before you scold me for using a stereotype to draw a sweeping and potentially simple-minded assumption, let me just add that I’ve actually seen a seemingly innocuous “Star Trek vs. Star Wars” argument almost come to blows. So yeah, guys love them some sci-fi. Naturally, when Advent Rising was announced several years back, I was excited. The game was going to be the first part of an epic sci-fi trilogy with plenty of kick-ass looking aliens, superhuman powers, ample shoot-em-up action and a plot crafted by Orson Scott-Card – a guy who wrote the book on how to formulate a fantastic sci-fi story (no really, he authored How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy). So, now that the game has finally hit store shelves, is it ready to offer the kind of sci-fi game experience that guys passionately crave? Weeeeeelllll…kinda.
Not long after popping Advent Rising into your Xbox, it becomes obvious that the money spent to acquire Orson Scot-Card was certainly worth it. Featuring the kind of pacing, character development and attention to detail one would expect from a best-selling sci-fi novel, the game’s story grabs you from the opening cutscene and ceases to let go into the credit scroll (I mean, the Earth explodes… what’s not to like about that?). Despite the fact that the game is only the first part of a trilogy, its plot comes to a satisfying conclusion, while still leaving the player eager to see what happens next. In the world of videogames, a storyline of this quality is a rare thing; in fact, it’s almost good enough to make one overlook the game’s numerous gameplay shortcomings. Almost.
You see, Advent Rising sports what the developers call “an innovative new targeting system” that is supposed to take the hassle out of aiming at bad guys on the fly during heated firefights. Instead of just manually aiming at enemies like in most first and third person shooters or holding down a button to target them like in Zelda, you flick the right analog to accomplish the task. Mechanically, this method works fairly well, with the proper baddie usually being targeted, even in huge mobs of enemies. The biggest problem with the system, however, lies with the camera. As you flick to various enemies during frantic action sequences (which the game largely consists of), the camera swings back and forth like a Japanese salary man riding the train home on Friday night. With the number of bad guys Advent usually throws at you, it’s easy to imagine someone actually getting physically ill from all the wild camera movement.
There is an option to play the game in a much more traditional first person mode, but this method poses its own significant set of problems. First off, the AI has been tweaked with the flick targeting system in mind, meaning the developers expect you to be able to leap, dive and somersault, all while staying locked on to one enemy. Naturally, in first person mode this is impossible, and any player who attempts to play the game this way will be made short work of by the game’s ruthlessly accurate, gun-toting baddies. Also, all of the game’s twelve or so weapons seem to run out of ammo far too quickly, even if you try to do strategic reloads while dual wielding, thus making the ruthless AI even more unforgiving. Even those using the flick targeting system will often find themselves frustrated with the frequent reloads, as they will inevitably lead to numerous deaths. These problems are alleviated somewhat when the main character gains his “super” powers, but the nausea inducing camera stays an obstacle throughout.
Oddly enough, the highlight of Advent Rising’s gameplay actually comes in the way of the various driving segments, which normally are the low points of shoot-em-up action games. Those who enjoyed barreling around in Halo’s warthog should be doubly pleased when these segments roll around (no pun intended), and for the good reason – the vehicular physics and steering mechanics are eerily similar to those found in Bungie’s classic. Also, I can’t help but recognize that these portions stand out largely due to the lack of the questionable flick targeting system.
Visually, Advent Rising is disappointing. Most of the main character models have a bland, plastic-like look to them, and many of their key animations like jumping and diving appear to be broken. Also, far too few character models were created in general, so be prepared to see the same two people (one male and one female) populating the supposedly “bustling” environments. Lighting is another sore point, with shadows appearing as flickering, glitchy messes when they do appear at all. Worst of all is the framerate, which frequently bogs down to levels that would make a traditional first/third person shooter unplayable. The flick targeting system allows for the gameplay to remain largely unaffected by the shoddy framerate, but it still remains an eyesore. The lone high point of the game’s graphical presentation is the incredible draw distance, which allows you to see far, far into the distance with almost zero pop-up (though, this is likely the main reason the framerate is so unstable).
It’s really too bad the visuals are so lackluster, because the game’s audio presentation is at the exact opposite end of the spectrum – that is to say simply stunning. Recorded by a 70-piece orchestra and conducted by the Emmy Award-winning Mark Watters, Advent’s score is one of the few true masterpieces in this current generation of consoles. On more than one occasion, the stirring soundtrack will kick in, single-handedly causing you to forget about the flawed gameplay and bland graphical presentation and truly enjoy yourself (incidentally, the soundtrack is available for purchase, and I highly recommend all film/videogame music buffs do so). The game’s voice acting is almost equally impressive, with only a few mediocre performances tainting truly stellar work overall. Explosions, gunshots and other sound effects all carry the punch of a big-budget Hollywood motion picture, and sound fantastic on a decent Dolby 5.1 set up.
Advent Rising reminds me of Breakdown (the Xbox game, not the Kurt Russell movie) in many ways. Both feature brilliant stories and interesting innovations, but are shackled by flawed gameplay mechanics. I can’t help but wonder if Advent wouldn’t have fared better as a movie; that way all the worst parts of the game (that is, all the game parts) would have been eliminated, leaving a truly wonderful plot, awesome music and top-notch acting. As it stands, it’s a flawed effort that may provide some fun for the truly thick-skinned, but most should just read a plot summary and wait for the next, and hopefully better, installment to come around.