"Bolt" the holiday season movie represents the first pure Disney article since John Lasseter took over the company's animation studios as part of the Pixar acquisition. Likewise, Bolt the multiplatform video game is unique in that it's one of the first titles in the new wave of Disney publishing many of its own licensed games stamped with the Disney Interactive label. Although Bolt may not benefit much from Lasseter's Midas touch, the title does well coming from a publisher with more invested than the usual movie tie-in money grab. The game is good if not great, and for kids, who typically enjoy movie games merely because they're associated with beloved characters, they'll get their favorite animated stars and a game they'll probably enjoy all by itself.
The overall presentation of Bolt is solid right off the bat, as you'd expect from anything coming out of Disney. The game only installs saves and progress information to the PS3 hard drive, but loading times between chapters, segments and recent checkpoint resets are negligible. Under the hood, there's a full realized game that's part basic platforming, part action/adventure, a little bit Stealth Jr. and a good portion — easily a majority portion — fighting.
Wisely, Bolt is not built around the plot of the movie, but rather around the plot of the movie within the movie, so the game is concerned with playing out the action film in which Bolt and his buddies are supposed to star. This works well because the game designers had freer rein in creating timeline tributaries and other adventures for the video game, without stepping on or changing a story that kids and adults who play the game probably know well. Also, it alleviates that very problem of knowing things well, having seen the movie and not having anything new to discover in the game other than tripping up on what game designers had to cut out because it wasn't feasible or playable.
Malcolm McDowell is the only big voice talent from the movie to reprise his role in the video game; neither John Travolta nor Miley Cyrus supplied lines for this iteration. Although both actors are fun to listen to, each for different reasons, they aren't much missed in the game. Bolt favors dog noises, and Penny, Cyrus' movie character, has little to offer but wisecracks and brief emphasis for her acts of derring-do. It's even likely, lacking the name talent, that the game's designers intentionally abbreviated Penny and Bolt's dialogue, and if so, this was another good decision. The game plays just fine without anyone standing on lengthy monologues.
The crux of the game design is spy missions in exotic locales all over the world. They all follow a standard formula: Penny, the stealthy spy, infiltrates, Bolt busts things up, we sneak around a bit more as Penny, Bolt busts things up some more, evil Calico escapes with Penny's kidnapped father and then we do it all over again in the next level, albeit in different surroundings with some unique enemies thrown in here and there. This is not tedious, though. It's actually a lot of fun, and even though Bolt's fighting sequences seem to go on and on and on, I never really tired — too much — of punching out bad guys before the level ended or the perspective switched to Penny.
Penny also fights here and there, most of her combat based on stealth or tricks compared to little Bolt's, ahem, brute force. Penny is also responsible for hacking computers in order to clear the way for Bolt to smash things in each level. The hacking isn't represented by puzzle-solving or even with a realistic computer interface, but by playing a simple shooter arcade game with design roots all the way back to Asteroids; the enemies in the arcade game represent the different levels of computer security Penny has to hack through. Yes, it's just like those cheesy depictions of "black-ice" security in 1990s teenybopper techno thrillers, and for that reason, even though it's a little stale in the game design category, I can't complain since it so well fits the context of Bolt's plot.
Everything looks and behaves like a modern adventure/platform title. From perspective to level schemes to graphical elements, kids and adults who like the genre will likely enjoy this title. Little of Bolt feels like an afterthought or a rushed job, and it seems like the design team had a decent idea of how they'd do the game while the movie was still in production. A nice touch: Sometimes when the game switches you from playing one character to another, say from Bolt to Penny, a couple of minutes into playing as Penny, you'll see the scene that closed out your last time as Bolt, but off in the distance from Penny's perspective. This lends some depth to the "you're in a movie" concept.
Enemies manage to be varied while still being much the same. Certain of Bolt's attacks definitely work better than others on particular enemies, but in general, leveling up Bolt's attacks by progressing through the game, and waiting for and then unleashing his rechargeable super-powered attacks, these things will clear combat stages with ease. As you spend more hours with Bolt, you'll instinctively pull out the power attacks; sliding through dozens of enemies becomes a lot faster with your deeper understanding of the game. Despite the basic similarity of the bad guys, there's enough variety to keep things interesting. You can tell because particular enemies will especially annoy you. (I hated Disky and his variants all the way through the game. You'll probably hate someone or something else.)
Bolt's graphics are generally superb, bearing in mind that for this type of game, the bar is not set all that high, save for HD graphics. Yet the level sets, from tropical ruins to icebound mountains, are nicely imagined in a distinct, bold style of cartoon graphics. Oddly, the load screen text and on-screen PS3 button icons look ripped right from the standard-def versions of the game. However, these hiccups aren't terribly important — you'll barely notice. More troublesome, as nice as the backdrop and environmental graphics are, and as fluid as the enemy animations, the character models of our heroes, especially Bolt, are just plain small. Although playing Penny looks about right, if you get to thinking about it while playing as Bolt, even about eight feet away from a good quality 32-inch HDTV, that dog sure seems at times like nothing more than a spastic white puffball with a fair arsenal of special attacks. This will probably force you to watch your attacks' effects on the enemies rather than watching as Bolt pulls off his attacks. Again, it's a good thing the environmental graphics and the enemies look as nice as they do.
Sound is good in a robust surround presentation. Sometimes it's too good, with off-screen sounds definitely getting your attention from your side/rear speakers. I'm just not completely accustomed to developers putting this much into digital surround productions for movie tie-in platformers. Obviously, good sound engineering across the board is welcome, but I'm still trying to get used to it.
As a final verdict, I'd recommend Bolt for anyone old or young who liked the movie and enjoys platform-style adventure games with a healthy mix of fighting. The older you are with the fewer number of kids around to play this game, the more I'd call it a rental over an addition to the collection. It's certainly not a short game by today's standards and for licensed titles in general. Children, say eight to 12, will probably enjoy this game for a couple of months or more, even though Trophy support is out (the X360 version has achievements) and the unlockables are little more than playable versions of Penny's hacking games. Missing Trophy support right now is just a quibble, but in about six more months, I'd call it a real problem. The weak reward-based content would be more of an issue if the main game itself didn't stand up on its own as so many movie games don't. Bolt does stand well on its own, though, and thus receives a qualified recommendation.
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