|System: Xbox 360, PS3|
|Dev: Other Ocean Interactive|
|Pub: Paramount Digital Entertainment|
|Release: October 26, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Fantasy Violence|
by Shelby Reiches
The War of the Worlds may serve as proof that Patrick Stewart makes everything better. What could otherwise have been a forgettable, if charming, old-school platformer is brought to life by his narration, reading from a script written by Christopher Fowler, who was chosen specifically because his tone evoked that of H.G. Wells.
And that's the crux of the game, both of its laudatory accomplishments and niggling issues that pull it back to earth keep it from being everything it could have been due to some bizarre design decisions that were most likely the product of the game's short development cycle. It's a self-described love letter to H.G. Wells and his famous story, The War of the Worlds, which has been twice adapted for the silver screen (only one such outing burdened with Tom Cruise). The tale has since inspired the works of such authors as Alan Moore, who featured the Martian invasion in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Most famous, however, was the radio drama spawned by the novella.
It's long been part of the drama's mythology that those tuning into a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds mid-way through were initially convinced of the events' truthfulness. Done in the style of news broadcasts, the episodes of the radio drama would report in on the war against the Martians as though the good people listening in were part of the fight, as invested as any fictional soldier fighting in this fictional conflict.
The War of the Worlds, the game, draws inspiration from all of the media representations, but tells an original story. It follows a man named Arthur, first as he returns to London from the countryside where he initially saw the Martians land and then on his quest to find his brother, Ben, and beloved wife, Emily. Patrick Stewart's narration is all in the past tense, framing the story as though Arthur is telling it to the player after the fact. It's smartly tied to progress, though, such that it kicks in at various points throughout a level, acting both as a means of exposition and a method of guidance to nudge players toward a solution to some of the game's more difficult puzzles or introduce some of its more esoteric concepts.
Further, there are radio broadcasts in the game, heard after Arthur picks up a portable radio partway through his journey. Though I am unfamiliar with the original script of The War of the Worlds radio drama, they sound as though they could have been ripped directly from that production, often tying the events of the Martian War to reality with the mention of famous figures—from the Queen to Winston Churchill—and constant comparisons in both scope and response to the events of the Blitz that decimated London during World War II.
In short, the trappings of the game are all brilliant. This extends to the visuals, which provide an evocative sense of place, while clearly demarcating what is dangerous with distinct visual effects. The alien technology, in particular, is menacing with its clean, sleek metal and bright primary-colored lights contrasted against the dingy wreckage of what was once London. The alien aesthetic is only jarring when one sees it extended to cover an entire level, with all of the darkness and shadow on which the game has relied ripped away in favor of sky-blue-and-silver everything. That the design for an alien encountered outside of its machinery is less than grotesque, having more in common with a flash-animated jellyfish or squid than the towering silhouettes in tanks in the background, is disappointing.
The overall visual style is uniquely old-school. It blends traditional rotoscoping for character animation over multiple two-dimensional layers of parallax, wonderfully evoking the feel of classics such as Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia and, in particular, Eric Chahi's Out of This World (Another World for the Europeans in the audience). There's even a very nice nod to them in the name of one of the levels—a very classy move in my book.
The audio, as well, is powerfully designed. From the deep thrum of a towering tripod's weapon ripping buildings from the ground to the crack of Martian mines as they burst from the pavement, the sound is absolutely superb. Stewart's narration, which was recorded overseas and sent over to the developers, is crisp and clear, save for a barely noticeable, but consistent, warbling skip near the beginning of one of the levels. The music, composed by Chris Huelsbeck, swells at the appropriate times, but also knows when to step out of the way and let silence do its part. It fits the atmosphere of the game perfectly and might make some gamers wish for a downloadable soundtrack.
Which brings us to the game itself. How does it play? As mentioned above, it draws strongly on Prince of Persia and Out of This World, particularly in its controls, which will seem deliberate and imprecise to those unfamiliar with earlier such titles. Arthur walks by default, but he can also run. He has a standing jump, which is his most vertical, and both a stepping and a running jump, the latter of which carries him farther and has a shorter take-off, but is harder to stop upon landing. He can also crouch and tip-toe along, or roll forward. Arthur is generally capable of latching onto ledges or ladders as he jumps or falls, which is integral to the gameplay, but this brings us to the first tear in the fabric of the game's design.
There was a moment in one of the levels in the latter half of the game in which I almost gave up and turned off the console. It was a sequence that involved ascending a chasm by first climbing a ladder on one wall, then jumping across to catch the other. All the while, red alien weed is growing toward Arthur and trying to grab him, to pull him down into the abyss below. I would make it most of the way up, but on the last jump, no matter how high I was on the second-to-last ladder, Arthur would crash into the wall and refuse to grab hold, instead careening downward until he met up with some kind of "catch point" on a lower ladder. I tried that section at least a dozen times, jumping over to the last ladder from various heights, but, even when jumping from the highest point on my own ladder, there was no payoff. Eventually, by sheer luck, Arthur developed a sense of self-preservation and grabbed hold, but I felt less like I'd accomplished a feat of platforming acumen and more as though the game had pitied me, or luck had momentarily favored me.