Release Date: June 30, 2009
The new Ice Age title for this summer's movie sequel is a bit of a surprise. It's a game I can call cute, fun and engaging without the expected "for a licensed title" caveat in the fine print. For its platforming genre, intended audience and even a reasonably more expansive group, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, though brief and simple, is a success. There are some studio-issue clips in some of the grander cut scenes, making for easy eye candy, but even the in-engine cut scenes are sharp enough and well animated. Ice Age is spot-on entertainment for children aged about 6 to perhaps 12 on the high side, and it's even entertaining for adults who want a hybrid platformer with lots of varied action in most levels, but without putting us through the wringer. Basically, the title is a good choice for quick summer play.
If there's any standout in the game's design, it's the camera. There's manual camera control on an analog stick if you want it, but it's very rare you'll think you need it; if you do use it, it's almost seamless. The function for snapping back to the default, behind-the-critter mode perspective common through most adventuring/gathering levels even features a slow glide back to center rather than the often jarring, disorienting wham-o! effect caused by many camera-centering mechanics. In a fast-paced, third-person shooter, this breezy pan will get you dead, but in an all-around easier and slow-paced title like Ice Age, the visual effect works just fine. I really can't say enough times that the automated camera control is excellent. It's been a long time since I've played a 3-D platformer and have been unable to report one real frustration about not being able to see where I'm going or having the sightline to an objective rendered useless by poor collision detection. Typically, movie tie-in titles are rife with this common virtual brick wall.
This Ice Age game shies away from reinventing the wheel, closely following the narrative of the associated "Dawn of the Dinosaurs" film, but interstitial cut scenes and level design are loosely constructed, based around the plot events of the movie rather than explicitly following them down to the shooting script. This is distinctly a fan's game, and these types of licensed titles assume the player has seen the movie and enjoyed it, or will see it and knows he will enjoy it. No amount of narrative in this arena will save a game if the gameplay isn't appealing. Ice Age fares well here, especially for the young fan. Players are cast at some point or other as all the favorite characters from the movie, and although they all perform similar actions with virtually the same control mechanics, there's enough variety in how they do it and where they do it that role swaps don't come off as a distinction without a difference.
Most levels involve completing simple objectives while collecting fruits and the all-important crystals of many colors. The fruit collecting and bartering system — sort of an RPG trainer for little children — allows the player to upgrade character and weapon attributes, as well as cash in for mini-games. To my disappointment, this is Ice Age's only multiplayer mode. We could have done with a co-op story mode here, and most of the mini-games are locked right off the bat. I hate that, especially for the youngest kids, who might not have the tenacity or skill to unlock all the mini-games they'd enjoy playing, perhaps more than the campaign, with family and friends. I'll give Ice Age a pass on this one because things like weapons and health upgrades are perks but hardly required; a concentrated effort to pony up the fruit for full mini-game access takes almost no time at all. Including all variants of the principal game types there are a lot of multiplayer mini-games, but they are all quite simple and their subtypes not so unique. They're still great for the youngest of audiences, and even parents and adult gamers will find them fun enough in smaller doses.
Those rare crystals unlock even more goodies. The crystal colors coordinate with what they'll pay for, and you can even cash in all that valuable fruit for a few extra crystals, if you wish. (The milk cow for a pocketful of magic beans, anyone?) There are the obligatory movie scene and character model viewers, but Ice Age also has an unlockable voice-over mode and, for another price in a different color crystal, a music player featuring in-game music. Neither mode will knock your socks off, but the title gets points here for having some extras beyond the stock movie game.
Beyond the larger level explorations there are some escapes, timed hunts and the like, and brief side-scrolling affairs. In addition, you can give challenge mode a go. Pick an Ice Age level and think Super Mario Brothers speed play-through; you get one chance per try to make your best time.
Movie tie-in graphics quickly become a blur, especially from CGI films, as for the foreseeable future what you see in the movie is not what you're going to get in the game. Part of it is technological horsepower, of course, but these days, with the stellar images coming out of Xbox 360s, a lot more of it is about economy and meeting scheduled release dates. However, I'd say Ice Age's graphics are a cut above the usual for an adaptation of a slick blockbuster animated film. Audio is merely decent, though I found the voice acting in the game itself making par. I hear in the multichannel sound the work of a heavy hand on the center channel; to get the side channels singing along with your center speaker, you might have to crank it up a bit or make temporary adjustments to the sound field settings on your receiver or amplifier.
As for the learning curve, it's about nonexistent, and Ice Age is full of tutorials and objective hints, anyway. At the outset, you're led through basic maneuvers that will eventually apply to all playable character roles via the solid control mechanics. Later on, current objectives are always available at the push of a button, handily pausing the game while you refresh your memory. A small issue here: The levels are hardly free-roaming, but many are large enough for you to unnecessarily double back where you've already been or exceed the geographical boundaries of the current task. At this point, the objective hint reverts from a specific goal required for immediate progression to a generic objective for the overall level. This means if you get befuddled as to where you're at, sometimes the hint mechanism is useless to help; you'll just have to figure it out on your own. Good thing Ice Age is so very simple. (Likewise are most Achievements, for those of you looking to knock off some Gamerscore cred in a couple of afternoons.)
For an easy game promoting, and promoted by, a movie license, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs does a good job for itself. It doesn't reach, dares only be adorable and appealing to fans of the movies, and, likely by sticking to these short-range guns, spares itself the unmitigated disasters often foisted on us by lots of less worthy tie-in games. For the child and the child in all of us, give it a whirl, but if you steadfastly insist you grew up a long time ago, please move along; there's nothing for you to see here.Score: 7.5/10
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