Developer: Edge of Reality
Release Date: May 9, 2006
Over The Hedge is the mandatory game companion to DreamWorks' animated film of the same name. The movie is itself an adaptation of the popular newspaper comic, making it a novel twist on the common comic-to-movie-to-videogame trend. The anthropomorphic stars of the show are RJ, the slick-talking raccoon; Verne, the overly nervous turtle; Stella, the sassy skunk; and Hammy the hilariously-hyperactive-and-generally-absurdly-detached-from-reality squirrel. Conveniently, they also serve as the playable characters. Their goal, and yours, is to cross the hedge and raid the nearby community of Rancho Camelot Estates for snack foods and all the necessary delights of modern life, like projection TVs and cotton candy machines.
The hedge serves as the dominant metaphor of Over The Hedge, separating the unrestrained world of nature and the forest from the boring and rigid land of planned communities and overzealous pest exterminators, separating us from what we want. It also serves as an apt metaphor for the world of licensed games. On the one side is the predictable but sterile and generic territory of most game tie-ins. On the other side of the hedge, running free, are the novel game mechanics and clever premises that time limits and license demands almost always place beyond the developer's reach. Over The Hedge fails to frolic freely in the land of the unexpected but is blessed by a work of fiction that fits cleanly and appropriately within the standards of the genre. Over The Hedge may not break new ground, but the standard mechanics are a good match for the subject matter of stealing food and indulging in mindless destruction.
As the story goes, the creatures of the woodland are stockpiling food and preparing for winter when RJ wanders in and uses his charismatic spiel to convince them to raid the nearby community for its plentiful stashes of snack food. RJ has a hidden agenda: He needs a large quantity of food to placate and bribe his grumpy and antagonistic bear mentor. The pilfering soon involves Gladys, president of the Homeowners Association and responsible for eradicating chaotic elements such as nature and the avatars of the wild, however adorable they may be. She brings in The Sniffer, exterminator and head of VermTech industries, who quickly begins mind-controlling as much of the local wildlife as possible, which serve as the basic cannon fodder enemies through the various levels. It's okay to beat on the adorable moles because they're brainwashed … and filled with chips and candy.
Also strewn through the levels are a variety of foodstuffs which offer power-ups and many DVDs which will unlock various extras, like songs from the movie and strips from the comic which inspired the whole multi-medium onslaught, while meeting the genre's item collection requirements. The benefit of accumulating DVDs is something all children should learn from an early age, and we thank Edge of Reality and the movie industry for providing us with this lesson. While a DVD might seem to be of dubious benefit to the average animal in a forest, the creatures of Over The Hedge are well supplied with electricity, and their forest hideout is outfitted with the latest gadgets, including laptops, camera phones, and any other loot snagged on a mission.
This forest clearing serves as the hub for the whole adventure, offering an opportunity to switch between the four playable characters, try on different hats, and jump to the latest mission or return to previous levels to unlock more goodies. Among the levels offered are a variety of suburban homes, both security-system laden interiors and meticulously landscaped lawns, the occasional bear cave, a construction site, the local amusement park, and the hostile corporate headquarters of VermTech.
Inhabiting these environs is a variety of distinct characters, all well-written and effectively voiced, if not by the actors from the movie. One of the primary joys of the game is the dialogue, which is always well delivered and will often be entertaining for both children and parents. Hammy the squirrel steals the show, with frequent hilarious non-sequitors which will pry laughs out of all short of the dead, though RJ's lines are also very funny, with a clever tendency to reveal his limited forethought while believably glossing over any weak points in his schemes (such as the complete lack of a plan).
Who needs a plan when you can just run in and bash every beastie in the room? Over The Hedge may occasionally pretend it has more complexity, but at its heart, it's a hopper 'n bopper, with an emphasis on the bopping. The majority of gameplay revolves around battering whatever poor brainwashed creature happens to be trapped in the same room. The thrashing itself will quickly grow familiar, as all four characters play pretty much the same, with the exception of a distinct special attack for each. In addition to a couple of basic combos, there are multiple special attacks which are useful for clearing out a crowd, jumping moves, and an assortment of temporary close- and long-range enhancements. Each character also has a basic ranged attack, which can deal with distant enemies or destructible objects, if given some time to charge.
Beyond miscellaneous destruction, interaction with the world is mostly limited to moving a statue to a pressure plate or flipping a switch. Within the levels are occasional elements of platforming, some of which are optional to unlock bonuses and some of which mandate a slight bit of precision to progress. The latter varies between success and failure, depending on how well the immobile camera and fixed perspective can make clear the necessary movement (hint: judging diagonal jumps from a distant camera will come down mostly to trial and error). One flaw of the distant camera viewpoint is the difficulty in measuring relative distances, which can lead to some missed platforms.
Throughout the game, the camera is kept out of player control and generally succeeds in showing all of the action without being nursed by the player, only becoming problematic in a couple of platforming sequences. The most jumping-intensive areas are almost like mini-games, subsections where forward movement is automatic and the player is just responsible for dodging and jumping obstacles. Some additional mini-games include helping Hammy defuse security systems by pressing the correct buttons as quickly as possible and a puzzle which involves finding the right foodstuffs to satisfy some very picky eaters. None are particularly compelling, but they do provide a change of pace.
The visual presentation does not make a break from the expected. The cinematics and level introductions are a mix of in-engine shots and pre-rendered movies, and both do a fair job of impersonating the movie. While no one will confuse the carefully modeled fur of the film with the plainer textures of the game, the design style makes the transition well, and the animation is more than adequate. From the camera distance typical of the gameplay, the limitations of the characters are barely noticeable. The levels stick to a fairly simple cartoony style which won't receive any rewards for flash but clearly and cleanly captures the setting while providing plenty of room to play in.
One odd quirk is a tendency towards overly dark night levels. The amusement park, for example, is lit so the rollercoaster platforms are essentially indistinguishable from the backgrounds. Audio production is generally spare, with subdued musical cues and clean sound effects accompanied by excellent voiceover work. RJ's voice in particular does exceptionally well in capturing the mixture of confidence man and brash attitude in the character.
The speedy but unhurried pace RJ uses to convince the other animals of the soundness of his plans and of his mental fitness in general is mirrored in the structure of the game. If a particular section is boring or of dubious enjoyment, well, another will be starting shortly. Combat and its single-minded focus on the pressing of the Square button is indeed repetitive, but watching a rabbit explode into chips and candy only slowly grows old. The addition of always-on, always-accessible cooperative play so parents or siblings can jump in at any time, aided by the simple and straightforward controls, is just icing on the cake. The energetic premise and enthusiastic voices ensure a new laugh is always just around the corner.
Over The Hedge is not for everyone, and some players will find it too sugary-sweet and uninspired for prolonged consumption, but many players will find it an enjoyable diversion, and fans of the movie and comic strip will find it both an accessible and an enjoyable translation from the source material to game form.
More articles about Over the Hedge