Release Date: March 24, 2009
I review a fair number of movie tie-in games, and I'm getting to the point I find reviewing movie tie-in games one of the most challenging things to do. At best, movie games are praised with backhands like, "The developers tried to impress people who don't care," or "For some reason, the designers put more effort into this property than it really deserved." The thing is, no matter the intended artistry of any movie game, they are foremost co-marketing opportunities. The notion behind a movie game is to sell that game to people who like the movie, and especially to children who often, though neither exclusively nor unanimously, tolerate a lot of gaming mediocrity in the name of playing scenes and characters from films.
A peripheral challenge to reviewing Monsters vs. Aliens is that both the movie and the game are so-called family entertainment. In fact, in case of the game, it says so right there on the box, "Xbox 360 Family Game," a soldier in the platform's ongoing push to position itself as the console of choice for both core and casual audiences. It's implicit from the outset that a movie game is not designed to break new ground and is structured to play it safe around a movie license, but it's also explicitly explained that the purpose of a family game is just wholesome fun for the whole family. Monsters vs. Aliens is supposed to be fun in a generally mild way and also promote the brand created by a big-budget animated movie. By just those two criteria, I'd give Monsters vs. Aliens a solid 10 score and go home.
The thing is, though, there is one criterion left over: I must judge the game as a contemporary video game, too. It has to stand against at least some of its cousins, and, as I'm starting to discover, the thing that seems most reasonable to avoid — comparing a movie game with a "real" game — is perhaps the only valid way to review a movie game. This is where Monsters vs. Aliens slips down the mountain.
This title, like a number of movie games, and many family or kids' games over the years, is a 3-D platformer. Most 3-D platform environments are restrictive, and Monsters vs. Aliens is especially so. The level design is always competent, but there's not much pizzazz, and with only three basic kinds of variation, it becomes repetitive — particularly repetitive considering the game is not especially short. Take the good with the bad: Activision isn't slamming one over on you with a two-hour game, but there's not much variety, either.
Gameplay diversity is catalyzed by the three main game characters, which you'll play in rotation: Ginormica (Susan), The Missing Link and the inevitable B.O.B. Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen and others reprise their voice roles from the movie. No doubt it's nice to have a lot of the film voice actors providing talent for the game, too, but I may be one of the few people who will lament the absence of Hugh Laurie here. The fact is that I had to tell a few people who, exactly, Laurie played in the movie. Everyone expects Laurie to sound like Gregory House, which of course he doesn't. Indeed, in his voice work, Laurie never even sounds like plain old Laurie. He plays a distinct character, and Laurie's timing and delivery is often brilliant. So I missed Laurie's Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D., in the game, although I expect most people won't.
Still, the voice talent perks up the whole game, which for the most part you'll play in discrete sections as one of the three aforementioned characters. Each characters has his or her particular abilities and appropriate controller layout. As for control and collision detection, again the game is supremely competent. Young children can easily handle it and hard-gaming adults won't be constantly frustrated by falling off chutes and ladders. As mentioned, the level design is nothing to write home about, and although the types of things you do in each level are determined by the character, you'll do the same things each time you play a character. These monsters may be talented, but they're not multitalented. Ginormica does her movie stunt while the others do what you'd imagine they can do if you've seen the movie.
The graphics in Monsters vs. Aliens, while the single weakest facet of the title, are — here we go again — competent. This is a problem, however, in a game derived from a CGI-animated movie. The specific problem in translating animated movies to the video game screen is that while no seasoned gamer really expects the likes of Gears of War 2 or Killzone 2 to look completely photorealistic, we sometimes subconsciously expect game developers can pull off a fetching copy of an animated film. A lot of casual gamers, targeted by games like Monsters vs. Aliens, certainly think the developers can meet that standard. Frankly, it's not true. We're getting closer, but it's not there yet. Yet even this knowledge does little to dampen expectations. Although these game characters look like the movie characters, and the environments are reminiscent of the movie environments, Monsters vs. Aliens' graphics were never fantastic for a game; for a movie, they fall way short. But it's not an ugly game by any means, and there few graphical glitches or technical issues. Still, Monsters vs. Aliens is set up for disappointment in the visuals department.
I can't wrap this review without examining the title's two-player co-op mode, which at first looks like a tack-on, and may indeed be a tack-on, but it's significant nonetheless. You should know the unlockable path, presented in-game with the DNA lab, is all about installing upgrades for co-op mode. If you play alone, you may want to collect DNA to unlock the movie stills and other similar goodies, as well as the mini-games, but the only real point are the co-op upgrades. Even the mini-games are placed as barriers to the upgrades slots; you have to complete them with the score equivalent of a bronze medal to activate the upgrades.
The game developers should get a pat on the back for even including a co-op mode, but at the outset of co-op play, you'll probably think that Monsters vs. Aliens has the cheapest, lamest co-op mode you've ever seen. The box copy claims you play as Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D., but in reality, you play as Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D., limited to targeting his multiplayer probe invention. It's not the character from the movie; it's a set of crosshairs you guide on-screen, blasting away while the player actually controlling the movie character runs through the levels.
Yeah, that's what I thought, too.
It gets better when you discover that unlocking upgrades gives you boosts, like an energy weapon that resists overheating and special high-power modes for that weapon. There's even a tractor beam so you can toss bad guys around and help solve puzzles. No matter how simple it seems, the multiplayer probe is pretty well integrated into the game. Younger children can play as the main character or as Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D., but they might need help unlocking the upgrades via mini-games.
As I can't take Monsters vs. Aliens merely as a movie marketing vehicle and family entertainment, the game must settle for an incomplete recommendation. Monsters vs. Aliens has co-op play, the primary player is not entirely dependent on the co-op player for progression, and the whole main game is easily played by children as young as four. Herein there are familiar characters, some fun in the voice work and, at minimum, competence across the board. Children who enjoyed the movie will like the game. Children who loved the movie so much they want the DVD now will really like the game. Unfortunately, however, a lot of gaming adults who liked the movie will have no use for the game; it's just too simple and too repetitive, and it lacks the compensatory eye candy to attract a crossover audience. But Monsters vs. Aliens does fulfill its modest promise: provide enjoyable entertainment that's suitable for children and best played with friends or family.
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