Release Date: May 26, 2009
I have this thing about in-game Achievements. I laugh at them. I mock people who are avid to rack them up. Then I go home, play, delight when that thrilling oblong box notifies me that I've unlocked a new one. For anything over five points, I often pause the game to check out my new Gamerscore total. After I've pretty well run through a game on- and offline, I hit the Web for lists of the more esoteric Achievements, mining for hints describing how to most easily get them. Great stuff. Of what value they are to games-as-art I have no idea, but I confess I like Achievements. If you like Achievements too, you're going to discover an immediate fondness for Up, the tie-in title for this summer's Disney-Pixar blockbuster movie, "Up" (if isn't a blockbuster, it's only because the world will have ended).
Many gamers will agree the title most commonly recognized as raining gold in the Achievements category is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I mean, that is the place to pick up a 1,000 points in a couple of hours. I've yet to play it because I'm not sure what doing so will say about me, but Up at least comes close to stealing the crown for breezy Achievements from the intrepid, patsy Turtles. Up hands them out. I sneezed while playing, and I swear I got five points for that — and another five thereafter for having hygienically discarded my tissue. Seriously, I received 50 points just for completing one level in story mode without failing or quitting, which is more typically a campaign completion award. Now that's passing out the goodies.
Generally speaking, I support the idea: If I'm so fond of Achievements, the game's youthful target market no doubt welcomes any and every pat on the back. This is not, and should not be, the numbing, brutal difficulty of a game like the original Xbox's Ninja Gaiden title (imagine what that would have been like had the original Xbox featured Achievements). Even if it's for something as uncomplicated as strolling by a particular plant, go ahead and hand out a few points here and there to make a kid happy. Unfortunately, however, all this Gamerscore candy seems intended as the payoff for enduring a fair bit of repetitiveness and not a few episodes of forehead-thumping frustration. I can forgive the former to a great degree. If kids like something, they'll usually go in for a lot of it, but children do not enjoy blind frustration. A challenge is fine, but "Help! Help! I can't figure it out," is not a challenge; that's a punishment. Up is ESRB rated for 10+, but it's intended for, and in most households will be acceptable for, all ages. Though my five-year-old surprised me at points sussing out a situation, where 10 and up may fare okay, younger kids will almost surely need ample help. For those children, I recommend the co-op mode with a parent or older sibling — but more on tandem play later.
The background premise of Up is as simple as the movie, which is to say not very, but the game does follow the film's general story line. You have an oldster, a real cane-toting curmudgeon named Carl, whose life story is on the tragic side. He and his wife, Ellie, were childhood sweethearts, always saving for a much-anticipated trip to Paradise Falls in South America. When Ellie dies before they can make the trip, the auspices of government authority eventually insist Carl should move to a retirement home, and thus is born Carl's plot to float his large old house with innumerable balloons, creating an ersatz airship bound for Paradise Falls. The kid who stays in the picture is Russell, a wilderness scout, who stows away on Carl's porch, only discovered well after the house is up, up and away. See the movie for the rest, but you get the idea.
The game starts with a brief intro featuring rodent airman trying to shoot down Carl's house. For the prologue, you'll play as a dog piloting a biplane, and you attempt to knock out four enemy fighters, thereby saving the house and allowing it to begin the bulk of its journey. (Yeah, yeah, I get it: dogfighting.) Right at the start, there's unnecessary frustration. In most flight sims and arcade aerial shooters, I can shoot down four enemy planes without even thinking about it, but it actually took me several tries to finish off the same criteria in Up. I repeated the sequence several times just to make sure I hadn't had a couple of "off" days. (Co-op adds a second gunsight, and that indeed does help, even if your partner player is just spraying the general area with bullets.) Completing that scene unlocks a multiplayer dogfight mini-game, but if it takes you as much effort as it took me just to shut down the enemy in story mode, it may be some time before you venture back. It's not hard, per se, but it's too hard for the game's context, and there are no variable difficulty settings. The controls are clumsy in this sequence, too, only further detracting from the experience. Openers, frankly, should be a breeze; they should bait for the rest of the game, no matter how difficult that's going to be.
After the intro, things open up a bit, with Carl and Russell trying through several levels to do the same basic things: hang onto the house, chase the house when it gets away, and move the house toward the goal of Paradise Falls. Jungle dominates the first environment, with levels fairly well designed, making good use of smaller environments without too much feeling of backtracking. For example, you'll have to swing across a gorge, push a rock, and then get back across to help the other character bridge the same gap, but it's a short distance, so you don't have to run around the world three or four times just to get Carl to step over a log.
Up, as you'd expect, from first level to last, follows the movie tie-in platformer formula. The primary goal is to get the characters in one piece to the same sunny, rose-garden resolution they'll reach in the film's plot. Along the way, you collect items to unlock things like collector's cards and such, virtual items that will appeal to children. Likewise, unlock mini-games, also likely of great interest to kids. It's standard, bland fare for adults, but your children will probably find it fascinating. There are points in the game where annoying jungle creatures are thrown at you in too great a quantity, or at least too consistently.
This, however, is where Up features some saving grace: The auto-save system is exceptionally forgiving. You don't have to do much over again if you fail. As an example, in a fairly brief triple-battle war with an anaconda, the game automatically saves not only when you defeat the snake, but also after every intermediate win required to ultimately banish the reptile. The checkpoint system is just about perfect for kids. Indeed I'd like to see at least the option for such a liberal auto-save scheme in a few of today's more difficult adult titles. Sometimes I just want to play through a game, see what happens next, and not be drubbed through the muck 20 times just to advance a trivial fraction of story progression. The checkpoint system does, however, shorten the game's story mode. There are 11 levels across multiple environments, but if you're a competent platformer and you rush through, you'll be done in no time.
Graphics and audio in Up are absolutely no better or worse than they have to be. There aren't any visual highlights, and the sound is merely serviceable. Character models are small. The game features a lot of on-screen hinting, but it's generally quite a bit of information displayed for far too short a time. Occasionally, I went ahead and offed myself so I'd get the chance to read the second half of a required hint.
Except for the mushy mechanics in aerial maneuvering, the rest of the controls work just fine, with one notable exception: the d-pad commands. The Xbox 360 d-pad is notorious for having a mind of its own, and putting all of both characters' special abilities on the various arrow directions was a mistake. I can't lay it all on the 360 controller, either: You press anywhere on the d-pad to get the special abilities menu graphic on-screen, and it takes too long for the graphic to fade in to give you a look at your options, but switching between characters when playing solo is quite smooth.
In the midst of what is, fairly, a lot of mediocrity, Up deserves a gold star for its co-op play. If you're playing co-op, the fact you're playing co-op matters — unlike a lot of co-op modes that are clearly tacked on, where the presence of a fellow sofa-sitter may add a little fun but does nothing for the game. In Up, each character has specific things he can do that the other can't, and in order to perform these things, and in the spirit of helping out one another, various tasks must be completed by each of the two co-op players; it's not anything like two guns on one target, or just a matter of the gameplay mechanic requiring both characters be standing in the same spot for no particular reason other than calling it co-op. It's a lot of fun to play with your kids shouting things like, "Quick, pull me up!" or "Run over there and jump down so I can grab that vine!" Up's co-op mode is well done — no getting around that.
Rare will be the adult gamer who enjoys Up purely on his or her own. As a game for the kids, the title deserves consideration, so much so I'd say if they're mad to get it, well go ahead and get it. As a family or group game, the involved, enjoyable and sometimes unintentionally hilarious co-op setting makes Up quite a good bet. And, hey, if you need a quick Gamerscore boost, by all means, pick it up.Score: 6.5/10
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