Among the array of self-invented games we played as children ("house," "army," "doctor"), being a spy was always my favorite. A pair of cardboard-tube binoculars and trusty Playskool radio at my side, I'd surveil the sensitive talk of a group of girls on the playground, reporting back to my squad of schoolmates on the monkey bars that Jenny did not, in fact, like James. There was something intensely dramatic about the experience – even if you were just keeping tabs on your neighbor's mildly suspicious gardening on the other side of the fence, it was always as simple as gathering together a few makeshift gadgets, finding a hiding spot, and letting your imagination do the rest.
In gaming, franchises like Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid understand the appeal of these play-situations well and have earned millions of fans by accurately executing what it feels like to infiltrate, hide in the shadows, and carry out a mission without leaving a whisper of your presence behind. Being meant for a younger audience, comparing these renowned series to Alex Rider: Stormbreaker may be a bit unfair, but the point remains – for a game about a teenage spy, Alex Rider fails to fashion the fun associated with spying.
Reliving the playful (yet serious) experiences from my youth were among my anticipations as I cracked open Stormbreaker, but much to this DSer's dismay, close observation of the title yielded little in the way of valuable gaming. Media based on other media do admittedly face a challenge in translating the original work to a new form, and with Alex Rider being a game based on a recently released film based on a book from a series of books ... you might say that the title had the odds stacked against it from the get-go. Players take the role of the golden-haired titular character, assigned to investigate Darrius Sayle, a wealthy entrepreneur whose goal to gift each school in Britain with a powerful new computer seems a tad too philanthropic.
The story is as simplistic as it likely is in film form, which wouldn't be an issue if awkward writing and narrow narrative sequences didn't wear the plot so thin. Even with this caveat accounted for (and regardless if you're a die-hard fan of the film and published works), Alex Rider's gameplay can't keep the experience afloat. While there are a small number of features that help momentarily buoy the title, ultimately, as the game's morbid tagline notes ("You're never too young to die."), Alex Rider's dull DS offering is best left condemned to a watery depth.
If real MI6 agents were using Alex Rider to train, they'd only learn that being a double-oh-kid entails little beyond kung-fuing your way past one faceless sentry after another, with optional use of (surprisingly useless) tools and gadgets to accomplish objectives. The game ironically tries to sneak by without fully integrating engaging espionage tasks into the gameplay, but its disguise is transparent. Through a handful of levels, players are tasked to punch and kick down enemies as they traverse through environments, collecting items that advance the mission. Along the way, two annoying elements impede the already-uninteresting play – a stamina meter that limits how many attacks Alex can throw (and how long he can run), and a caution gauge meant to mimic the one from Metal Gear.
Don't be fooled, though: The caution meter is merely a timer that constrains how long you can be in combat with enemies (100 seconds) before "game over," adding a sense of urgency to levels that ends up feeling artificial. In an effort to keep players sane between extremely similar stages, Altron also added mini-games that coincide with the story: racing a horse cross-town through London, lowering yourself down the top of a building with a grappling-hook yo-yo, or a lively game of snooker offer some relief from the main mode.
But that's it. There's no stealth to be spoken of, no clever use of spy tools, nothing complex enough to make Alex Rider worth playing. Presentation-wise, there are a few things the title does to help hide the experience underneath – Alex's framerate cruises without a blink (but does so by employing some really ugly textures), the Mission Impossible-themed music is tolerable, and the user-interface on the bottom screen is sharp enough to make one wish the actual gameplay compounded upon its immersion. Likewise, levels are actually fairly well-designed (particularly the second outdoor forest stage), but their good looks are dressed-down by depressing collision detection that makes them difficult to explore. At nearly every turn of the game, Alex rams himself into an invisible wall if you cut a corner too close. Technical obstacles aside, the more major offense is that the developer neglected to do anything interesting within these environments.
Each level consists of the aforementioned "combat" (i.e. mashing X and Y until the enemy falls), along with collecting mission items throughout the stage. Interspersed along the way are power-ups: health, increased attack power, experience points, and spy points (in the form of gold bars, naturally), which are used to purchase unlockables. Unfortunately, the objects detract from the overall flow of the game because they're scattered randomly across levels and there's no sense of having to earn any of them. On the bright side, considering the combat system's simplicity, you probably won't need to pick up additional health or power-ups anyway.
Speaking of simple, the gadgetry the player employs doesn't serve to supplement the features at hand. During levels, you'll use the stylus to select from four "DS" cartridges to offer aid. One cartridge allows you to get a mission update from MI6, others display items or enemies on your map, and the fourth deploys a smoke bomb, making Alex invisible for 60 seconds. Again, because enemy encounters and combat are so easy, you never actually need to make use of these items during the game. There aren't situations where the player is compelled to call upon these resources, and you can get by just as well without touching them.
Acting as bookends between the disappointing levels are eight mini-games. Though mostly unimpressive, they help to break up the tedious story mode by including scenes from the film as play sequences. Repetition plagues the games: dodging tree branches while gliding down a zipline, a horseback race through London, and Alex's Road Rash-style motorcycle getaway can all be beaten by tapping a few buttons quickly.
The two mini-games do that stand out are "Snooker" and "Man-O-War," the latter of which drops Alex in a fish tank with a pack of jellyfish. Snooker is just that – the British take on pool played against Darrius Sayle. The 3D engine Altron developed for the billiards game boasts an intuitive interface, making it more arguably engaging than the rest of the title. It helps that these mini-games are accessible from the main menu, but while they are a step up (in some instances) from the missions, there's not nearly enough there to salvage the title's sad symptoms as a whole.
Some may be willing to forgive the fact that Alex Rider: Stormbreaker is essentially an action game served with a few cheap spy-esque side dishes, but the fact that it doesn't offer an especially appetizing action experience either resigns the title to being one you'll wish really had stayed hidden in the shadows. Lackluster design elements (poor textures, collision issues), repetitive gameplay, and tacked-on concepts all equate to one spy adventure best left classified.
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